CINEMA / Looking after Number One: The Bodyguard (12)

WHY trust haircuts? They seem such frivolous things, mere chop and change, yet they remain one of the most accurate guides to cinema. Photographs of Harpo Marx at home show a mild, ordinary man; add the wig, however, and all hell breaks loose - a burst of blond bubbles, suggesting that his brain was made of bath foam. It was. Brando grew his hair long for Last Tango in Paris, which suited the louche old goat he was playing; then razed it off for Apocalypse Now, which was perfect for his bloated Buddha. But even he got it wrong with the white locks of Superman: most people thought he had just spent five minutes under a Mr Whippy dispenser. One glimpse, and you knew the film was a no-no.

Now there's Kevin Costner, an interesting variant on the Samson principle. In Dances with Wolves he was thought to be strong and single-minded, but there was something off-putting about his righteousness; how on earth could we have faith in a hero who looked like a Bay City Roller? I prefer the Costner of No Way Out, all white ducks and short back and sides. They get even shorter in The Bodyguard - half-way to skinhead, frankly - and here again he seems to enjoy himself. Mick Jackson's film is wildly unfocused, a snatch of teenage dreaming, yet I found myself warming to Costner as he paddled around in the tripe. However much he wants to play strivers and thinkers, it's nice to know that he can still hack it as a matinee idol.

His character is Frank Farmer, a former Secret Service agent who makes good money by guarding the bodies of the rich and famous. His latest assignment is a rock star called Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston), who has been plagued by threatening letters. She lives in a Los Angeles castle that looks like a birthday cake; the camera cranes high and stares longingly at it, just to make sure that we find it awesome. Frank, by contrast, finds it full of holes, and we have to sit through a jolly musical montage while he puts up a load of boring gates and cameras. 'You have to take more precautions,' he tells Rachel, which is either a security assessment or a slimy way of announcing that he intends to go to bed with her.

Which he does, in due course. To be honest, you won't find a course more due than this. People fall in love, then out, then in again; the rotter turns out to be a trouper, and vice versa; the murderous motive is waved in our faces early on, then left to soak until the end, by which time we don't care any more. This piffle was dreamed up by Lawrence Kasdan, no less, who wrote it 20 years ago, on his way to Raiders of the Lost Ark; even more amazingly, he still thought it was worth filming now, with all its withered toughness. 'You're ready to die for me?', Rachel asks Frank. 'It's the job,' he replies. Wrong, Frank. It's the script.

Jackson, the British director who made LA Story, lets the movie wander around, knowing that it's something to do with profession vs passion, but no more than that. At one point it simply takes a holiday, away from all the stress and strain of the plot; Frank drags Rachel up to meet his snowy-haired Dad in a winter wonderland. It seems a long way to go just to prove that (a) rock stars look cute in cashmere, and (b) Kevin Costner hasn't forgotten how to smile. This is cinema as fabric softener, and not remotely ashamed of itself.

A lot of visual styling gets frittered away - watch out for a shock close-up of a Hoover - while we wait for the moments of climax. One of these comes off well - Rachel turning up at a club dressed like the robot in Metropolis, and almost getting torn apart by her Myrmidon fans. An overhead shot of her body held aloft makes it feel like human sacrifice, with the ritual beat of her new song pumping in the background. But the real finale is a hoot, free of danger and full of make-believe, as Rachel is stalked by her killer at the Academy Awards. That's right: she's up for an Oscar. Famous singer becomes great actress. Hey, guys, you forgot the Nobel Peace Prize]

This is unfair on Whitney Houston, shamed by the freakish character created for her. She'll never be a great actress, but she's not a bad one either - more proud than relaxed, shall we say, refusing to flinch when the camera gawps at her. There's the voice, of course - that customised contrivance, digging deep then swooping up to heady trills - but the film is strangely unmoved by the sound, and pretends to have plenty of drama to be getting on with. Even Frank doesn't go for it: we see him watching her on video, but not a muscle moves in his foot, and later it transpires that he prefers country and western. Oh, great. The final scene, by the way, suggests that Kevin Costner is, in fact, God; so The Bodyguard may be a Christmas movie in more ways than one. It will certainly do for holiday garbage, and the stars twinkle well enough, but it remains fantastically indifferent to love and fame and the whole damn thing. Is Whitney Houston really insecure? This movie has the solution: get a new padlock.

Here endeth my last film review for the Independent on Sunday, which will be music to the ears of many. Thank you to all the readers who have written with advice, corrections and requests for my deportation. To those who have complained that I am down in the dumps, all I can say is, I would have loved to be up in the clouds. For all the climbing ticket sales, these are murky days for cinema, and it is sad to report that the best film I saw in the last three years was a re-release - Bresson's A Man Escaped, made in 1956. Still, let us remember the reasons to be cheerful: The Fabulous Baker Boys (showing tonight, incidentally, on BBC2), Toto the Hero, the rise of Geena Davis and Alan Rickman, the diet of Hannibal Lecter, the liquid villain in Terminator 2 and that line about squirt-guns in Miami Blues. And let us pray for better things in 1993. Happy New Squirt.

Anthony Quinn takes over next Sunday as acting film critic. He will be reviewing 'Tous les Matins du Monde', 'A Winter's Tale' and 'A Few Good Men'.

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