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CINEMA / Confused, meaningless, racist and dangerous

IN Falling Down (18), Michael Douglas's face starts out a smarting crimson - a medium rare that gets better done the worse he does. We open so tight on his nose the camera seems about to tumble down a pore, before widening out to take in the full, livid mug. The thin lips turned into a downward crescent; the steady, resentful gaze. Meet D-Fens, a character to whom you may already feel too close for comfort. On the soundtrack, even before the pictures come up, we hear a deep breath. It's about the only one he takes: his fuse is measured in millimetres.

The film follows the flare path of Douglas's anger through Los Angeles, as he pays back a lifetime's irritations with eight hours of blow-torch rage. He starts by leaving his car (whose numberplate provides his monicker) on the grid-locked freeway and dropping in to a Korean grocery. The manager won't change a note and charges 85 cents for a Coke, which didn't seem too pricey to me but does to D-Fens. He decides on 'standing up for my rights as a consumer'. Instead of telling Which?, he smashes up the shop with a baseball bat. Another strike is made on some Latino toughs, and once he's got their bag of weapons the real fun starts: a burger joint hold-up (can't stand those measly portions), a phone box shot to pieces, road-works cleared by bazooka.

Look again at that face. Is it that of a madman, or Everyman? Believe the latter and you buy the case for D-Fens - that he speaks for the destructive anomie of the betrayed American middle class. Like many Californians, he lost his defence-industry job to the peace dividend. There's no more Cold War to take the heat out of his resentment, just hordes of immigrants grabbing jobs and grubbing up the city. 'I'm the bad guy?' D-Fens asks at the end. 'How did that happen? I did everything they told me to.' In case you don't spot that the movie's about America, there are Stars and Stripes in every frame: as Douglas mashes the Korean, flags tumble to the floor. It's a violent society, so we see D-Fens's son watching some cartoon savagery on television and firing a water- pistol at the set.

The makers claim that the film is ambivalent. In fact, it's confused. D-Fens isn't representative; he's a sociopath. He may embody American angst, but he has a nutful of his own neuroses. He has become such a menace to his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) that she has taken out a restraining order on him. He's an over- reactor on a nuclear scale. We all feel his grievances over deceptive advertising, exclusive clubs and general rudeness, but we bite the bullet. The film won't admit D- Fens is different, so we get no sense of how he got that way. Whereas Taxi Driver detailed the rebuffs that led up to Travis Bickle's cathartic rage, Falling Down just shows us the explosion. It's meaningless.

It's also dangerous, pandering to D-Fens's prejudices. We see the world through his jaundiced eyes - the screen is full of parched yellows and browns. There's an insidious racism: the film opens with D-Fens staring at a young Hispanic girl in a car, her head lolling as listlessly as her doll's - she seems slothful and untrustworthy. There's no counterweight to such loaded images, no distance from them, just as there are only stereotypes of the Koreans. Douglas has said it's up to Koreans to improve their image. Who's next against the wall?

Michael Douglas has become the master of Zeitgeist schlock. He's the mirror-image of his father, Kirk: nobility turned to pettiness, Lust for Life to Basic Instinct. No other actor moves so seedily; here he has a petulant sidle, like a child sent to the corner, head erect in a sort of proud bewilderment. His reedy voice is whinier than ever. It's an undeniably compelling performance, only matched by Robert Duvall as the good cop who tracks D-Fens. Frederic Forrest plays a Nazi murdered by D-Fens - to show D-Fens is not sick - but he's such a grotesque he'd make anybody seem sane. Director Joel Schumacher, credited with toning down Ebbe Roe Smith's script, paces the film rivetingly, which goes to show that good film-making doesn't guarantee a good film. Falling Down is as sleek and efficient as a torture chamber.

New Zealander Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart (15) spans half the century and most of the world, from 1931 to 1966, the Arctic to England, telling an unlikely story with visionary verve. An English map-maker (Patrick Bergin) takes a tubercular Inuit child, Avik (Robert Joamie, later Jason Scott Lee), to hospital in Montreal. Years on, they meet in the RAF, both wooing the same girl, Avik's long-lost sweetheart (Anne Parillaud). Ward is on the wartime ground of many recent novels, notably Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, whose Sikh sapper was betrayed by a colonial master like Ward's Inuit. There's the same mix of fear and frolics: life's precariousness spurs Ward's lovers to new daring. They make love in the Albert Hall rafters, her stocking falling on a kettle drum, disturbing a bored rehearsal below.

As in Ward's earlier films, worlds clash and the director can't resist a visual stunt. The Navigator had a white horse on a steeple; here it's left in the living room. The film has been heavily cut and feels squeezed into melodrama, the performances unfocused (save for the gap-toothed radiance of the child Avik), the symbols forced. Yet there are moments of pure magic. Aerial shots of the Arctic: of arching whales and roaming caribou; barques skimming blue seas under white mountains. The same bobbing camera catches the bomber raids, and Avik's life-changing crash into Dresden. Planes crowd the sky like a giant flock of birds, beautiful and ominous. With his climax in Dresden's billowing flames and Catherine-wheel sparks, Ward seems to be saying you can't map out life: it's too strange and too awful.

Another talented Antipodean, Australian John Duigan, makes a fine stab at Jean Rhys's haunting novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (18). In the Jamaica of the 1840s, Antoinette (Karina Lombard), a highly strung Creole girl from a family of former slave-owners with a streak of madness, is pushed into an arranged marriage with a young Englishman (Nathaniel Parker). It's a tale of oppression (of women and colonials), dream and reality, life and death and death-in- life, and a rattling love story. Their passion burnt out, the couple smoulder with resentment, and a suspicion kindled by the mysteries of her past. Their love is foredoomed: he is Edward Rochester, and she is his mad first wife destined to languish in Jane Eyre's Thornfield Hall attic.

Duigan films the startling imagery of Rhys's novel - a parrot aflame, the garland of frangipani that Rochester tramples on his wedding night - and adds his own. Underwater photography shows seaweed clasping and parting, and strangling Rochester in his dreams. There's a hint of warmth in Nathaniel Parker's smile, but condescension too, and later lowering menace. Karina Lombard, who plays Antoinette, looks to have sprung from the brush of Gauguin. She's skittish and nave, and even when satisfying her lover seems in another world. Her stricken face, as she stands at the quay, about to leave the island she loves and sail away to her fate, wrenches your heart.

Just space for the ingredients of Jamon, Jamon (18): heaps of ham, one beefcake (Javier Bardem), two families, some nude bull-fighting and endless love-permutations. Bigas Luna whips them into a souffle with a bitter centre: a tragi-sex-comedy. The film's tongue is largely in its cheek, but it samples most other parts too.

Cinema times: Sunday Review, page 78.