CINEMA / De Niro, straight from central miscasting

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The Independent Culture
PROFANITY and pathos are the strong suits of Richard Price, author of The Color of Money, Sea of Love and Mad Dog and Glory (15). The film is covered in Price tags: seedy urban milieu (this time Chicago), down-at-heel professional hero (Robert De Niro's forensics tec), and a bunch of low- lifers a little wittier and more philosophical than life. It's a man's world of joshing rivalry and crude camaraderie, where a guy's biggest wish is '16 vestal virgins for Christmas'. Testosterone seeps from Price's pen.

It doesn't seep from De Niro's Wayne Dobie, who's such a kitten of a cop, his colleagues call him Mad Dog. (Price has a dig too, twinning him with the charismatic painter, Lionel Dobie, in his script for Martin Scorsese's New York Story.) When De Niro saves a man's life in a grocery store, it's more pacifism than heroism.

The saved man, a gangster (Bill Murray), doesn't know whether to be thankful or furious. He settles for flippancy, suggesting Wayne offer the assailant a back rub while he's about it. Later, to say thank you, he sends, on a week's loan, a barmaid called Glory (Uma Thurman). It makes for a good title and a good few feminist heart attacks.

You may have already spotted a problem with Mad Dog. Yes, casting. Price's crackling dialogue tends to draw stars into a dim demi-monde for which they're too shiny. In his last film, Night and the City, Jessica Lange pulled pints and De Niro, as a two-dime lawyer, pulled fast ones. Here we watch De Niro's failing cop and Thurman's failed actress have a TV dinner. As their inevitable romance grows, they're meant to be The Prat and the Showgirl, but they can't shrug off their glamour.

There was a sort of logic in turning Bill Murray's couldn't- care comedy to tough-guy menace. Making him a failed comedian - he hones a gruesome stand- up act at his club, The Comi-kaze - was pure dumbness. There's no fun in watching Bill Murray playing a man failing to be funny.

De Niro has played nerdy before, in The King of Comedy, but with a streak of psychosis. Wayne, with his blazer, slacks and gold- clipped tie, is all harmless normality. De Niro garners the gaucherie: the over-greedy lovemaking, the lumbering way he pulls his gun and shapes to fire, only to find he's aiming at a colleague. But when he sits dejected after his embarrassment, a shot of his powerful hands makes the humiliation unbelievable. He contorts his face and crinkles his eyes to look vulnerable and comes across as ingratiating. And he is again too much a loner to turn himself into a lover: even when he gets close to Thurman, he's miles away.

Director John McNaughton shot to fame and notoriety with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Here, his independent spirit is constrained by studio conventions, his nihilistic wit blunted. Price is said to have sat on the script for years until he found a director sufficiently offbeat, yet after the opening, when a crack dealer's car flares from monochrome to colour at the lighting of a match, the film toes the Hollywood line right to its tied-up end. Price veneers it with real life, but his streetwisdom is self-conscious and sentimental. He writes great scripts rather than great movies.

At last, an American remake (The Assassin, 18) true to its original. A pity the original was Luc Besson's thriller Nikita, a triumph of chic over sense. The remake is not just faithful: until the end, it never lets Nikita out of its sight.

The story already felt American. It's about second chances. A girl in a drugs gang (Bridget Fonda) kills a cop during their burglary of a chemist's, and is sentenced to death by injection. When she wakes up, it's Gabriel Byrne rather than his archangel namesake ministering to her. He's a tutor at a Washington school for hired guns, housed in a cavern of computers and smart suits. George Orwell meets Paul Smith.

Fonda has an education mixing SAS-style combat training with tips on things like deportment, provided in absurd Swiss finishing- school scenes with Anne Bancroft. Once Fonda's learned to use knife and fork as well as sub-machine- gun, she's loosed into the real world. She gets a new name, a boyfriend (charmless Dermot Mulroney), and lives an idyllic life, only interrupted by the odd mission to blow up a hotel. Don't ask how she keeps her cover, or how the police and press react to these spectacular terrorist hits. Don't ask anything, in fact. This is the sort of film that falls to pieces under questioning.

It is not helped by Bridget Fonda. The original's best scenes snarled with Anne Parillaud's untamed ferocity, as she resisted her captors and fought against training. Fonda thrives at fragility: her gift is for romantic comedy or victims (as in Single White Female). There's not enough viciousness in her for the government to tap for their terror. And being softer, oddly, makes her less sympathetic. If the murderer is not tortured and deranged, but gently sane, we're less sanguine about her second chance. Likewise with the film: its Gallic chic and ingenuity don't travel well.

Harvey Keitel puts in a brief, brutal performance. He's known as The Cleaner, because he clears up botched jobs, but within seconds he's strewing the floor with bodies. Keitel's only rival in the Grim Reaper stakes, Dennis Hopper, is in full psychotic splendour in John Dahl's witty film noir Red Rock West (15). He plays a Vietnam vet hired by a bartender (JT Walsh) to bump off his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). In the way is Nicolas Cage, another Vietnam vet, but with an uncomplicated, laid-back decency. Cage finds out and decides to tell the sheriff. Trouble is JT Walsh is the sheriff. The spiral of excruciating coincidences reminds you of Blood Simple. There's no noirish poetry, and the plot, though tight as a glove, doesn't deliver much of a punch. It's humorous pastiche rather than the real thing.

There's no avoiding it: Pedro Olea's The Fencing Master (12) is about fencing. The fencing, in fact, is its best feature. Going to it with clockwork movements and gauzy helmets, the duellists look like giant insects courting. Which is a fair description of the master (leonine, Leninish Omero Antonutti) and his pretty parasitic pupil (Assumpta Serna). She wants him to teach her his famous thrust, and thoughts on a similar theme begin to disturb his ascetic cool. Before he can act, dreary stuff like murder and the 1868 Spanish revolution intercedes. It's an elegant enough study of the moral turmoil of revolution, and the inner turmoil of bachelordom.

Cinemas and times: Review, page 78. NB: times for 'Boxing Helena' may be wrong. Please check before setting out.