CINEMA / It's bleeding marvellous: Reservoir Dogs (18); L627 (15); Man Trouble (15)

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The Independent Culture
It all began so innocently. A bunch of guys sitting round at breakfast in a diner just chewing the fat, arguing over the deeper significance of Madonna's 'Like a Virgin', then turning to a debate on the ethics of tipping waitresses. They josh and taunt one another in a style that recalls the bantering machismo of Barry Levinson's Diner - the sort of dialogue that deletes everything but the expletive. Yeah, they like a good laugh, these guys. The credits roll as the group ambles out into the street, dressed in identical black suits, white shirts, black ties. They could be going to a funeral. In fact, a funeral is exactly where they are going - their own.

Cut to Mr Orange (Tim Roth), bleeding from the gut in the back of a speeding car while the driver, Mr White (Harvey Keitel), tries to calm him. In flight from a bungled diamond heist, Mr White takes his wounded partner to the gang's bolthole, a deserted warehouse, where most of Reservoir Dogs unfolds. While Mr Orange lies in a thickening pool of gore, Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) turns up; shaken by his getaway, he has a theory about what went wrong - the gang has a 'rat in the house'. How else could the police have shown up so suddenly?

First-time director Quentin Tarantino assembles his story in a sly shuffle of build-up and aftermath (the one thing we don't see is the heist itself). The robbers, who have never met before, are hired by Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn). They address one another by the colour-coded pseudonyms Cabot has assigned them to protect their identities; one of them has a greater need to protect his. He is an undercover cop - the rat in the house - whose plight Tarantino reveals to us halfway through, and whose impersonation of a professional thief underlines the film's central leitmotif. Everyone in Reservoir Dogs is play-acting.

With Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin invoked as standards of tough-guy bravado, the movie is a masterclass for hard-nuts. The nastiest bit is Mr Blonde's mincing dance step around a trussed-up cop he has kidnapped. Pulling a razor from his boot, he proceeds to torture his victim to the strains of the old Stealer's Wheel tune, 'Stuck in the Middle with You'.

That scene has already acquired a certain notoriety, in spite of the camera gazing off into a corner as we listen to the cop's muffled screams. Reservoir Dogs isn't quite the superviolent shocker advance reports suggested. Tarantino quotes from Mean Streets and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and sprays the blood around with gruesome abandon. Yet to my eyes it was no more grisly than, say, The Last of the Mohicans, which mystifyingly got a '12' rating to this one's '18'. Reactions to screen violence differ sharply: while watching the unfortunate cop in extremis, I chewed off the end of my pen, but the bloke sitting next to me couldn't stop guffawing. I declined to ask him whether this was the 'horrid laughter' of Jacobean revenge drama.

Reservoir Dogs is fast, fierce and, in its way, pretty funny. The film is a portrait not so much of a criminal fraternity as an intensely male one, and that's reflected in its language: chauvinist, brutish, toweringly profane. The only female role is non-speaking, and after a vicious 10-second gun battle, non-breathing either. Steve Buscemi is great as the weaselly Mr Pink. Tim Roth handles his first American role with considerable panache. The honours must go to Harvey Keitel, who plays the good thief with a gruff tenderness that's a match for any of his more ballistic roles with Martin Scorsese. He anchors the film when it threatens to spiral into comic-book savagery, but he has grace as well as gravitas. There is a long list of reasons why you should see this movie - Keitel's at the top of it.

They disorder things differently in France, or so at least their brand of policier would indicate. In Bertrand Tavernier's L627, an undercover cop usually means one who can't shake his duvet off in the morning. Taking its title from an article of the Public Health Code under which persons suspected of drug-trafficking can be held in police custody for up to four days, the film is short on plot and long on procedural detail: it prowls the same patch as Bob Swaim's La Balance and Maurice Pialat's Police. This might not make for gripping drama, but there's a terrific confidence in Tavernier's impression of life caught on the hoof.

The film centres upon Lucien 'Lulu' Marguet (Didier Bezace), a conscientious and resourceful detective on a Parisian drugs squad. Whether chivvying out his underworld contacts or hammering away at an ancient typewriter, Lulu brings a kind of spiritless tenacity to his work. He realises the root of the drug problem is the traffickers, but his superiors are more concerned with filling a quota of convictions and pointlessly rounding up the users. Faced with a rising tide of indifference, laziness and corruption, he keeps up a sentimental attachment to Cecile (Lara Guirao), a young junkie and prostitute whose wasted vulnerability would make her the sacrificial lamb in any other cop movie. But L627 refuses to ring the obvious bells, abjuring shoot-outs and car chases for a dogged, one-thing-after-another detailing of the flic routine.

So we get interrogations, stake-outs, set-ups, locker-room larks and departmental faffing around, but mostly just aimlessness and boredom. Lulu himself is very much in the mould of Philippe Noiret's old soldier in Life and Nothing But - a decent man committed to an impossible job. Tavernier offers us nothing as comforting as a message. This slice of cop verite just tries to tell it like it is: crime and nothing but.

Not much verite of any kind in Brian De Palma's Raising Cain, but then this director's grip on reality has always seemed rather tenuous. Roasted over the epic awfulness of Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma here returns to the territory of antic psychodrama he has made peculiarly his own. This one is a black comedy about a child psychologist (John Lithgow) whose interest in parenting has gone way off the graph: he monitors his infant daughter with saucer-eyed obsession. His wife (Lolita Davidovich), meanwhile, has been drawn to an old flame (Steve Bauer) and is now making cack-handed efforts to keep it secret.

For most of the first hour De Palma plays disorientating tricks on his audience, crunching together dream sequences, flashbacks and conversations that never happened. Coherence has never been one of De Palma's strong points, but Raising Cain is a teaser even by his standards. As the schizoid doctor, John Lithgow is a revelation, shifting between three different characters with hilarious and terrifying suavity. Oddball though he may be, De Palma still impresses: only he could take on Hollywood's faddish concern with parenthood and turn it into something as tasteless and deranged as this.

Last, and quite decidedly least, is Man Trouble. It must have looked great on paper. The last time Jack Nicholson collaborated with director Bob Rafelson and writer Carole Eastman the upshot was Five Easy Pieces, one of the milestones of 1970s Weltschmerz. Sadly, the reunion gets into all kinds of trouble. Nicholson, running through a familiar routine of tics, is a down-at-heel security expert who can't believe his luck when he's summoned to a flash Beverly Hills apartment and finds Ellen Barkin in it. A romantic comedy ensues, if the tedious capering and hopeless gags on offer can really pass as 'comedy'. Man Trouble isn't an unrivalled catastrophe, but it would be a dispiriting job to dredge up the rivals.