Cinema: Elmore Leonard strikes again

Out of Sight (15) The Negotiator (15) The Slums of Beverly Hills (15) If Only (15) Victory (15) T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (PG) The Wisdom of Crocodiles (18) The Philadelphia Story (U)
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The Independent Culture
Elmore Leonard is the Dostoevsky of the FHM-reading classes. And ever since he became Quentin Tarantino's personal guru, he's been the novelist closest to Hollywood's heart. The studios might bung Michael Crichton more cash, but they don't, one suspects, believe that he's a writer worth reading. Leonard, on the other hand, is eagerly consumed - and as a result he's treated like some bourbon-sloshing version of the Dalai Lama.

But that doesn't mean that he's a box-office sure-fire. There are as many hits as misses on his resume. Get Shorty was a thin attempt by Jersey Films, Tarantino's backers, to duplicate the cynical larkiness of Pulp Fiction. Paul Schrader's Touch turned out to be a satire that didn't know which way to spit. Tarantino himself has had the most success with Leonard material, transforming the so-so thriller Rum Punch into Jackie Brown, a work possessed of a gorgeous, stately sobriety. And Out of Sight, the latest Leonard adaptation, is a decisive hit: a perfect portion of cinematic pulp, gently pressed from one of his most recent novels.

It is, of course, a tale of small-time crooks with big-time ambitions, and far too convoluted for me to offer you much by way of a synopsis. So let's just say that it's a love story involving Jack (George Clooney) and Karen (Jennifer Lopez), two incurable romantics who aren't very career- compatible. He's an escaped bank robber; she's a Federal Marshal who's determined to get him back behind bars.

As it's a Jersey Films production, the QT influence looms large. Clooney is a survivor of his vampire panto, From Dusk Till Dawn. Pulp Fiction alumnus Ving Rhames is present as the hero's best mate, and Michael Keaton snoops by as the goofy detective Ray Nicolette, reprising his role from Jackie Brown. However, there's one important innovation: the film is directed by Steven Soderbergh. And although he and Tarantino both have a Palme d'Or on their mantelpiece, Soderbergh is the more sophisticated director. At least, he's not so obviously stuck on kung-fu movies as Quent is.

Soderbergh's light touch and quiet cleverness give the film an easy, unemphatic quality. He can suggest even the most violent atrocities without uncorking the ketchup bottle. Though Out of Sight has a standard shoot- out finale familiar from innumerable 'tec thrillers and westerns, its most brutal event - the killing of a drug dealer by a shabby gangster - is conveyed by a dreamy montage of reaction shots, and red aerosol paint being slowly sprayed over the camera lens. And, as he demonstrated in sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh has a fine instinct for the perverse turns of everyday life, which suits Leonard's twisty plotting down to the ground. Out of Sight's unlikely lovers seem as puzzled by their interest in each other as if they had unexpectedly unearthed a mutual predilection for an embarrassing sexual kink. Their relationship is halting, awkward, bitchy and sweetly played - especially by Clooney, who really blossoms under Soderbergh's careful eye. Until this week, I'd had Clooney down as an unpalatable cheeseball. But, while watching his well-modulated performance as Leonard's almost-honourable thief, he suddenly seemed like the nearest thing to Cary Grant that we're ever likely to get. He's more down and dirty, of course, and his eyebrows are a bit more Tony Slattery than you'd want them to be, but he's got enough of Grant's flappable charm and bone-dry charisma to look like a proper, grown-up movie star. Grown-up enough to do that smartass Leonard dialogue, anyway. And when most of Hollywood's male heart-throbs don't look old enough to get served in a pub, that's something to cherish.

Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey go head to head in F Gary Gray's The Negotiator, a punchy thriller in which Jackson's Chicago cop, a renowned hostage-crisis man, is framed for murder by his own colleagues. In an attempt to clear his name, he precipitates a hostage crisis of his own, demanding that a respected negotiator from another precinct (Spacey) takes command of the situation. Originally written for Sylvester Stallone, the script has a fondness for lunkheaded swearing that sounds uneasy in the mouths of such elaborately rhetorical performers as Jackson and Spacey. This is the sort of film in which characters yell "F--- You!" as though it's a polished Dorothy Parker put-down. However, this doesn't disrupt the wonderfully louche chemistry that develops between the stars, nor does it impair Gray's high- impact direction. Sturdy entertainment, if you don't think too hard about the plot.

Back in the real world (almost), Tamara Jenkins's The Slums of Beverly Hills offers a fictionalised account of the writer-director's teenage years at the crummy end of LA's smartest suburb. A Seventies-set family comedy with a wicked sense of humour and a pronounced breast fixation, it has many moments that - after The Ice Storm and Boogie Nights - seem rather overdone. We don't really need a scene of a podgy teenager in Y-fronts singing "Luck Be a Lady" to remind us that some pretty awful things happened in the 1970s. But it seems churlish not to admit how roaringly funny much of this film is - which is mainly a result of Jenkins's Exocet instinct for crippling social embarrassment, and the superb performance she coaxes from Alan Arkin (who plays the down-at-heel father). Arkin brings a world of embattled optimism to the part. "Look at this corned beef," he barks. "Isn't that the most beautiful thing you ever saw in your life?" There are few actors, I think, who could make that line such a killer.

Arkin and Jenkins's enviable comic timing shows up this week's other comedy - an Anglo-Spanish co-production entitled If Only - as the dismal piece of work it is. Maria Ripoll's movie is a kind of magic-realist Sliding Doors, and stars Douglas Henshall as a Notting Hill zero who's given the elbow by his girlfriend and subsequently transported back in time by some mystical Spanish dustmen. As dopey as it sounds, but a lot less fun.

If that hasn't sated your appetite for half-baked Euro-pudding, try Mark Peploe's Victory. It's a Joseph Conrad adaptation which takes us to a sleazy Malaysian hotel, in which reliable character actors (Simon Callow, Bill Paterson) favour extravagant facial hair, and the mid-price stars (Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe, Rufus Sewell) do that kind of acting that looks well in a linen suit. Probably the best reason to see it is to find out what Edward Kelsey - better known as Mr J Grundy of Ambridge, Borsetshire - looks like in the flesh. (He's the one near the billiard table with the gigantic beard.)

Imax 3-D dinosaurs are just the kind of tricksy sensation for which the Victorians invented cinema. Brett Leonard's T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous is an effects showcase which lets the reptiles roar in your face, swoop over your head, and galumph through the cycads with its teenage heroine (played by Liz Stauber). The incidentals (such as shots of rowan twigs and palaeontologists' knees) also take on a terrifying reality - so much so that you find yourself ducking to avoid bits of tree and trouser. The medium, however, is horribly unflattering to its human participants. You see every scale of the tyrannosaurus in pulsating colour, but you also get a similarly pin-sharp view of poor Liz Stauber's zits.

In The Wisdom of Crocodiles, Jude Law stars as Stephen Grlscz, a vampire in a designer anorak who has the decency to wine and dine his victims before going for their jugular - it's all down to some guff about him feeding on their love for him, rather than the vulgar haemoglobin for which Christopher Lee went shopping by night. If love can be present in the vampire's victims' bloodstream, it can also be present in his - which is why he's so distressed when he finds himself falling for Elina Lowensohn's asthmatic structural engineer. A well-intentioned attempt to give an adult twist to a genre that's principally an adolescent enthusiasm, The Wisdom of Crocodiles is undone by a script that can't tell the difference between genuine sophistication and the kind of pretension indicated by the title. However, the director, Hong Kong veteran Po Chih Leong, lends the film an invigoratingly un-British aesthetic.

Let's bring things to a close with a sublime piece of movie-making, George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940). It's a fast-talking romantic comedy, of course, but there's nothing vapid or trivial about it. Cukor's film - in which Katharine Hepburn's imminent wedding is disrupted by the appearance of her former fiance (Cary Grant) and a scandal-sheet hack (James Stewart) - has a strange and melancholy heart. You never doubt that it'll be the one who really loves her who gets to take her to the altar, but between the rounds of screwball bickering, Hepburn's self-doubting socialite sheds real tears. An addictive, bitter-sweet pleasure. If cinema was declared illegal, this is the one I'd hide under my floorboards.

One last word. This will be my last regular cinema column on these pages, so as I emerge blinking into the daylight, I just wanted to thank all of you who've written in to disagree with me (mainly about Titanic), and all of you who didn't (dreadful, wasn't it?). It's a wrap.