CINEMA / The new De Niro: just a big kid

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The Independent Culture
WE'VE supped with so many Robert De Niro monsters that it's hard to believe he has new horrors to serve us. Dwight, in This Boy's Life (15), seems the sort of psychotic De Niro could play in his sleep: a domestic tyrant who scalds his wife and step-son with blowtorch fury. But of all the raging bullies De Niro has played none has been so infantile. With his kindergarten vocabulary ('Shut your piehole'), towering tantrums, and playground taunting, Dwight is a new beast in De Niro's menagerie: the monster as six-year-old.

Dwight was the real-life stepfather of American writer Tobias Wolff, on whose memoir the film is based. We meet him in the Seattle apartment where teenaged Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mother, Caroline (Ellen Barkin), have settled in the Fifties. We've already seen Caroline link with a lunk in Florida, before ditching him for the road. Dwight starts out more of a goof than a brute, with a crinkly grin, over-solicitous handshake, and a dumb line in bonhomie: 'People can call me anything they want so long as they don't call me late for supper'.

'What a dope]' remarks Toby, under his breath, and later does a wonderful impression of Dwight's jerky, preening movements and unctuous repartee. These scenes, laying out Dwight's inadequacy, are played as a sort of cloudy comedy in which you know the fair weather cannot last. Dwight enters a rifle contest and, after being way outscored by Caroline, grouches at his gun. He plays the saxophone, closing his eyes in ecstasy while everybody else tries to close their ears. His sex is as selfish as his sax. When Caroline asks to see his face as they make love, Dwight tells her: 'It's my house and I get to choose.'

Beside the crabbed, sad Dwight, Tobias burgeons through adolescence. The film is about the battle between the two, as Dwight sets out to destroy this boy's life. When Dwight beats Toby (after hearing of the mimicry), gets him a crew cut to match his own, and makes him join the Scouts, you can just about kid yourself that this is tough discipline rather than naked aggression. But his obsessive digs at the boy's rich father, and brother at prep school, show that the cruelty springs from his own limitations. He hates Toby for his talent and his cheeky enterprise - what Dwight calls being a 'hotshot'.

The film wouldn't work so well if it were a one-man show. DiCaprio, 18, matches De Niro in more than Italian heritage. Time will tell whether this is a star's debut or the right part at the right time. DiCaprio's looks are quivering into adulthood: a boyish frame with a man's hefty shoulders and a girl's soft face and delicate eyebrows. Bombarded by Dwight, he retains an impish satirical angle on the world. Divergent forces pull at him: the camaraderie of local thugs and the cultured friendship of a boy he first fights (calling him a 'homo'), then bonds with. And he feels he's being coarsened by Dwight. He plans to escape to college.

Ellen Barkin is largely sidelined, a spectator at the duel, refusing to adjudicate. But she's also the suffering heart of the film. When Toby suggests they leave Dwight, she tells him: 'I don't have another get-up-and-go in me.' She's settled for the best she can find, and the best is terrible. The part was a courageous choice - faded beauty isn't a favourite with leading ladies. Barkin brings it off with a resigned smudge of lipstick and a voice, pitched up a tone, which has a desperate rhetorical edge.

It's not giving anything away to say they pull through (the film is narrated by Toby), their escape all the more moving for the authenticity of their ordeal. Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones delves deeper than before, in films like Scandal and Doc Hollywood, while mixing in Fifties music, often as an ironic counterpoint to the gloom, and unobtrusively showcasing the performances. Another good reason for going is the sight of De Niro in Boy Scout uniform.

Ken Loach's Raining Stones (15) is also about surviving a monster - the unemployment ravaging the north of England. The futile search for a job by Bob (Bruce Jones) and his mate Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) is both depressing and farcical - a shaggy black dog story. The film opens on a pea-souper with the pair kidnapping a sheep on the moors - a scene of desperate, almost hallucinatory humour. Bob has a stint as a nightclub bouncer; his wife, Anne (Julie Brown), works in a clothing factory: they're both soon sacked. A life without a job creates a world out of joint: Tommy is tipped by his own daughter, and weeps at the humiliation. All the while, the sharks circle - the type that wear sharp suits and chunky gold bracelets, and hand out loans.

It's 25 years since Loach made the classic Kes, in which, over a grim industrial world of human viciousness, a hawk hovered like a benediction, a glimmer of light in the darkness. In Raining Stones, the ray of hope is provided by the dress that Bob and Anne determine to buy, come what may, for their daughter's first communion. The film slyly endorses Thatcher's family values, while showing how hard she made it to uphold them. Bob and Anne's resolve keeps them going - and almost kills them, when the loan sharks bite, menacing Anne and the child with sickening savagery.

Raining Stones is as sanguine as its characters, buoyed up by their spirit. It has the knockabout humour of Loach's Riff-Raff, without the glum conclusion. Screenwriter Jim Allen's depiction of his local community rings true not only in pubs and clubs, but on posh porches, where Bob offers

to unblock drains - all shot with documentary vividness. Krzysztof Kieslowski describes in Kieslowski on Kieslowski (Faber, out tomorrow) how he saw Kes and knew that he'd 'willingly make coffee' for Loach. He would do the same for 'Welles, or Fellini, and sometimes Bergman'. Raining Stones returns Loach to those heights, and again the harsh political truths are balanced by lyricism, a whisper of spirituality and a hint of optimism.

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. I think it'll end in a John Woo movie. Hard Boiled (18) has all the Woo ingredients, which is to say mainly one ingredient: slaughter. The setting is his native Hong Kong; the participants, the Triad and the cops. The film is a series of tableaux, all in red. The killing, largely done in swoony slo-mo, has a weird balletic grace, actors twitching in the hail of bullets like salmon on the line. Images such as the floury face sprinkled red in a kitchen shoot-out stay with you. Meanwhile Woo's The Killer (18) has a limited re-release. It's much the same, with less humour and more poetry.

Twenty-five-year-old Londoner Danny Cannon, director of The Young Americans (18), has mastered the first rule of film-making: if you have Harvey Keitel in your cast, keep the camera on his face. Keitel plays an LA cop over here to bust a drugs ring, and his hard, harried look carries the film: he struts about London with contempt, as if it were something the cat had brought in. Cannon handles this genre piece slickly, apart from some leaden love scenes and a fluffed finale. Someone says to Keitel in Soho: 'Not exactly Hollywood, is it?' 'Not yet,' he replies. The same can be said of the film.

Cinema times: Review, page 106.