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CINEMA / Harrison at the waxworks

WE ALL know about the British film industry, covered in mould and left at the back of the larder. But who's to blame? The government, the producers, the film schools, the morose legion of screenwriters? Hey, here's a new one: how about Britain? It isn't her worst failing, or her most important one, but really the old girl simply doesn't look the part. She's fine on television, but point a movie camera at her and she goes all coy. America was the cradle of cinema, and those early cries seem to have battered the landscape into the right format; the cities grew up, and upwards, into a mythology woven for them by the movies, and still wear it like a good suit to pose for Hollywood's photographs. England shies away; America says cheese.

It happens everywhere: America has the western, but when did a filmed British landscape last move you, rather than remind you of a National Trust drying-up cloth? Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale, I'd say, made in 1944, or one of his mysterious Scottish sequences. Scotland, in fact, has fared rather better - think of those deep-breathing, luminous beach scenes in Local Hero. But how did small-town America come to stand for a mild but universal heartache, that twin sense of longing and belonging, while English towns shrink into parochial curiosities at a movie's touch? 'I gave up my ticket at Ketchworth,' said Celia Johnson, and you know just how she felt. We all gave up our ticket at Ketchworth.

I found time to ponder these matters during Patriot Games this week. Odd, really, since this is a big American thriller directed by an Australian, Phillip Noyce. But it splits into two distinct chunks: the British bits, which embarrassed and bored me, and the American bits, which had me leaning forward and rattling the ice in my small dustbin of Coca-Cola. Harrison Ford plays Jack Ryan, a retired CIA man with a voice like an old leopard and a wife called Cathy (Anne Archer). They are staying in London with their daughter when Jack is caught up in an IRA attempt to blow up a limousine. He fights back and foils the plot - 'Hero saves Royal cousin,' screams the headline in The Independent, monarchist as ever. Jack then spends the rest of the movie trying to flee from revenge. You know how these things go.

What's dreadful about the British scenes is neither the howlers - nobody is quite sure where or indeed what Kent is, exactly - nor the implausibilities: the Queen's cousin doubling up as Minister of State for Northern Ireland, say, a security horror not helped by the fact that he drives without an escort car. Mind you, I did want to know why brave Harrison Ford was given the KCVO - is he actually a long-serving diplomat from the Home Counties who only pretends to be a CIA analyst with good small-arms technique? The trouble is that the film is even more of a tourist than the Ryan family. It gawps at the changing of the guard, of course, but also treats normal street-life as a parade, and all the local characters - James Fox plays the Minister, Alun Armstrong the rat-faced copper - as a show of clockwork types. Is that how Americans see us, how film makes us appear? No wonder they keep going to Madame Tussaud's. They think it's full of live Englishmen in their natural habitat.

So it's a joy when the action switches to the States, and Noyce knows it. His camera takes a long running jump at the coast of Maryland and soars high over the naval base, just for the hell of it. Here Jack Ryan goes back to teaching, but not for long; soon he gets tensed into classic paranoia - mirrors, backward glances, the soundtrack tickled by a wire brush on drums. As he proved in Dead Calm, Noyce is a great mover and shaker of our fears, but he likes to work inch by inch, not with a monkey-wrench and a megaphone. I loved the car-chase, because (not to spoil it) one party doesn't know that the second party is right behind; a third party does, but he's miles away. And it ends off not with a fireball, but a ghost of smoke over the highway, haunting the eyes of Harrison Ford.

He can take a lot of close-up, not being one of those actors who try to impress the camera by pulling faces. He's only got one face, and it's here to stay. I like him most in action pictures - he pulls off stunts well but wearily, as if there were something or someone else on his mind. Directors who make him merely thoughtful (in Presumed Innocent, for example) tip him into dullness, but Noyce keeps him scared and busy. There's an amazing scene, deep in an electronic bunker, where he and the CIA chiefs watch a terrorist training camp being rubbed out. On satellite, of course - the bright blur of hot images, like those relayed from Stealth bombers during the Gulf war. You remember that weird and distant excitement, as the men around Ryan keep the score: 'That's a kill . . . Target has been neutralised . . . It's over.' But Ryan is quietly aghast, neutralised with shock at what he has set in motion.

The plot winding through all this is stupid enough, although not quite as dumb as it might be. For that you have to go to the original novel by Tom Clancy, for whom every explosion involves a line of white space followed by the word 'BOOM]'. Also, the James Fox character is a cop-out; in the book, we had the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were there right up to the final shoot-out. This meant lots of delicious lines from His Royal Highness ('I am adept with light weapons'), which I was sorry to lose. On the other hand, given current conditions, would He or would He have not told Her to duck under incoming fire? We'll never know. Instead we get a stealthy nightmare - a whole house under attack, with plenty of crawling in and out of coal-chutes. Noyce is a master of closed spaces, and must have been peeved to move outside for the watery climax.

Patriot Games is rot, but much better rot than I expected. Once business is concluded this side of the pond it takes on a new intensity, the thrills carefully pitted with intimacy and rage. Anne Archer is a big help, as she was in Fatal Attraction - steady and solemn, but good with the butt of a shotgun when needs be. And needs be like crazy towards the end, as hordes of Irish fanatics pour in - Patrick Bergin, Polly Walker and a spiteful Sean Bean. The film calls them 'an ultra-violent faction of the IRA', and even calls up Richard Harris as a Sinn Fein veteran to express disgust at their activities. Are we thus supposed to think of normal IRA men as only semi-violent, decent chaps who never dirty themselves with vendettas? If the film were any more serious, that would be a worry. But Patriot Games is a good laugh, and a good look at Harrison Ford, and any connection with political truth, or with the real layout of London, is entirely coincidental.

Tom Kalin's first film is called Swoon, an update on Hitchock's Rope. In 1924 two Chicago lovers, Nathan Leopold (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) kidnapped a boy and clubbed him to death. The defence saved them from the gallows on an insanity plea; the movie finds them not just sane, but cool and amused. Filmed in sugar-soft black and white, catching us out with clean cuts, Swoon is too pleased with its own amoral pose; but Kalin has the same alarming assurance as his heroes, whose story has, if anything, grown in its power to shock.

'Patriot Games' (15): Empire (240 7200), Barbican (638 8891), Camden Parkway (267 7034), Whiteleys (792 3324), MGM Baker St (935 9772), Fulham Rd (370 0265) & Trocadero (434 0031); 'Swoon' (18): Metro (437 0757), Ritzy (737 2121), Camden Parkway. All numbers are 071.