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CINEMA / A premise that promises too much: In Keanu Reeves, the action genre may have found the hero it has been holding out for. He assumes so little, and beguiles so many

JAN DE BONT'S action-thriller Speed (15) opens to the sound of clanging machinery and the sight of sleek, metallic surfaces. We are down a lift shaft, but at least, thanks to De Bont's sinuous camera, we are moving, which is more than can be said for the lift's passengers. They are stalled in a cage primed by Dennis Hopper to blow up - caught between an explosion and a hard place. This drama is merely the prelude (at 30 minutes, rather a lengthy one) to the main action. But it sets the tone. For Speed is a machine itself, a lurching juggernaut, providing a bus-ride into an unreal world where the laws of logic and likelihood are replaced by those of suspense.

The premise is beguilingly simple, even beautiful - and wonderfully preposterous. Foiled in his lift plot by LAPD cops Jeff Daniels and Keanu Reeves, Hopper plants another bomb on a city bus. Here's the punchline: the bomb goes off if the bus's speed slips below 50 mph. The film takes the old Hitchcockian principle (keep the bomb ticking while the audience squirms) and sets it on wheels of fire. Keanu scrambles aboard the bus to run operations. He liaises by radio with Daniels, replaces the wounded driver with a sparky passenger (Sandra Bullock), and tackles irritating obstacles en route, such as a 50-foot stretch of uncompleted freeway. At this point the bus almost flies, and so does the film. There is a rare exhilaration in scenes such as the one when Reeves slides under the hurtling vehicle, flat on a trolley, face to the sky, like a magnificent reclining Titan. You feel as if you are breathing the pure air of heroism.

In Reeves, the action genre may have found the hero it has been holding out for. As Eastwood has begun to mock his age (a way of admitting it), and Stallone and Schwarzenegger have opted for super-heroism (a bloatedly camp version of the real thing), it has been Bruce Willis in the Die Hards who has come closest to the traditional manly virtues. More modern and more ambiguous, Reeves may have broader appeal. He assumes so little, which may be the reason why he beguiles so many. Here he has hardened his voice so that he looks like a boy and sounds like a warrior. There is some (too little) love- play between him and the outstanding Sandra Bullock. A wide-grinning, feisty ingenue, she is out of the school of Julia Roberts and may be ready to take it over, now that the headmistress is scoring such low marks. There is a lovely moment when she seems to go through fear to a kind of heedless humour.

Speed comes here on a gale of acclaim from America, and it is easy to be tickled by the premise into a merriment which overwhelms its faults. But I was disappointed. For one thing, Speed is slow. That first half- hour is a little too like being stuck in a lift - wearisomely anxious. And it exploits rather than explores the passengers' fear. There's an unpleasant voyeurism, a total lack of empathy, as we watch the elevator plunge, and see its occupants getting rattled in all senses. Once we're on the bus, things pick up. But then we're taken off it too often, with cuts to the police HQ allowing the tension to seep away. Having so audaciously set up a plot with the unities of time and space, it is a shame to shy away from them.

There are some, including the film-makers, who have celebrated Speed as a model of abstraction, a paradigm of pure plot, unsullied by such detritus as character. Keanu Reeves has criticised films like In the Line of Fire for coercing us into sympathising with the hero through such cliches as the cop's scarred past. Reeves's LAPD man has no past. Likewise, the people on the bus are spared the hand- wringing speeches and crying jags of characters in disaster movies. In fact, they are given little more than a cursory glance. Call that a virtue, of focus and stream-lining, but for me it makes Speed relentlessly empty. The film is devoid of humanity and therefore hard to care about.

It would be easier to accept the abstraction argument if the film wasn't so stuffed with cliches. To reveal that Hopper's psychopath turns out to be an ex-cop is not to give much away, except the film's lack of originality. The character is a dim shadow of Scorpio in Dirty Harry (from where the idea of a bus in peril may also have been hijacked), and neither as menacing nor as witty as John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire. De Bont's direction, when it's not inept - as in an early long shot of Daniels grappling with Hopper which looks like a party game - is steeped in time- honoured editing patterns. This is his directorial debut after years as an action photographer, notably on Die Hard, which accounts for the sparkling bus sequences, but also for the wooden acting. It's one thing having a novice behind the wheel, more of a problem having one behind the camera.

Compare Speed with another directorial debut, Steven Spielberg's Duel, which consists almost entirely of a man in a car being chased by a truck, and you will see how far Speed falls short of classical simplicity and symbolic resonance. But these are a critic's distinctions, and Speed may be a case for casting criticism aside. I saw it on a Tuesday morning with some middle-aged journalists. No doubt it works better on a Saturday night with some popcorn. That way it may be a gas.

It is no coincidence that the two most disturbing scenes of cinema violence in the past year have been in Ken Loach films. In Raining Stones there was the smooth loan-shark's terrifying savaging of a debtor. Now in Ladybird, Ladybird (15), we see, in flashback, the heroine Maggie (Crissy Rock), who had been abused as a child, being beaten up by her husband, her face left a smear of blood. In both cases it is the casualness of the brutality, erupting out of the everyday, which is so shocking. After the movie mayhem of Speed, Loach brings us painfully back to earth.

Maggie has had four children by four different men when she meets Jorge, a Paraguayan exile, and, in Vladimir Vega's sensitive portrayal, clearly the most caring man she's met. 'I've copped off with Julio Iglesias]' she tells her mate. 'Keep your knickers on,' she's advised. But Maggie is childishly susceptible to affection. She is all innocence on the outside, perhaps because it has been stripped away inside. She has two more children by Jorge. In the course of the film, we see all six children being taken away by the social services, not to be returned, after doubts are raised about Maggie's ability to care for them.

The film is based on a true story and has attracted the usual nit-picking from journalists who believe Loach has it in for the social services. There are legitimate concerns about a confusion between the objectivity of a case study and the emotional requirements of drama, but the film doesn't come over as a polemic. It is balanced in its portrayal of social workers, showing us the good, the bad, the sensitive and the sanctimonious. And it gives them a reason for their actions (the fact that two of Maggie's children received serious burns in a fire after she had left them at home one night). A judge describes Maggie as having a 'low intellect and little self-control' and the film might not disagree. But we also see her humour and decency, and how she's most irrational when under the cosh. If anything, the film is a lament over the inadequacy of institutions such as the law in dealing with the strange complexity of human lives.

It is also about love. The love of a country: 'I don't want to love it because I have no hope left,' Jorge says of Paraguay, as Loach might of Britain. The love of a mother for her children - titanic but sometimes deemed not enough. And the love of a couple against the odds - of poverty, racism and injustice - fragile yet resilient. Love conquers everything - except the social services. Rich and humane, Ladybird, Ladybird is one of Loach's (and Britain's) finest films since Kes in 1969.

Bad Boy Bubby (18) is a remarkable debut from the Australian Rolf de Heer, pitched somewhere between satire and surrealism. Nick Hope's Bubby is a mentally retarded man with electric-shock hair who, when we first meet him, lives in an incestuous relationship with his repressive mother. In the grey light of their stained, cell-like room, they resemble a pair of Francis Bacon figures. Bubby eventually kills both his parents, and his cat, suffocating them with clingfilm, and escapes the lair to become a star as a

punk-rock singer through his inane repetition of whatever is said to him.

It sounds, and frequently is, grotesque, but it is played and directed with such conviction that it never alienates us. This is a despairing vision of a poisoned society - some of the dysfunctionality reminds you of Jane Campion's early work - where only the mad seem to have feeling. In a dehumanised world, de Heer is telling us, the crazy man is king. His film is a cult classic in the making.

It is hard to make either head or tail of The Red Squirrel (18), a Spanish erotic thriller about an amnesiac girl and the lover who claims her. But it is stylishly, sombrely shot, tortuously plotted, and freighted with psychosexual suggestion.

Cinema details: Review, page 90.