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CINEMA / Too many kicks, and not enough punch

JEAN-CLAUDE Van Damme sounds like a curse from the Low Countries, and that's a pretty fair summary of his acting too. Like Steven Seagal, he started in karate, martial arts having replaced the Method as the Hollywood leading man's schooling. His early films were cheap but effective: ruthless kick-boxing extravaganzas, in which his lines could fit on a karate block. Van Damme turned down an offer from the Paris Opera Ballet to train as a dancer, and there was a balletic beauty to his kicks to the head. He couldn't put his foot in his mouth because he was too busy putting it in other people's.

He doesn't speak much in his new film, Nowhere to Run (15), and when he does, the thickly accented, muttered lines can be surreal: 'I am the parking attendant and you're bothering my customers.' He is in fact a convict on the run, who's pitched a tent on the land of a widow (Rosanna Arquette), and is fighting for her against sharkish developers (a Chinatownish crew grouched over by Joss Ackland). The film wants to trade on the traditional Van Damme assets - rippling muscles, serious tan, bravura fisticuffs - while selling him as a romantic lead. His earlier films, given the brazenness of their other kinds of physical contact, were surprisingly coy about sex, as if the violence might be sullied by it. Before his hair got tousled and permed, and he grew even chunkier - almost paunchy here - he looked like a fresh-faced Sorbonne student.

Joe Eszterhas (writer of Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge) had a hand in the script, a Shane-like contemporary western: Pale Rider re-written as Tanned Rider, with the avenging stranger on a Triumph motorcycle instead of a trusty steed. Director Robert Harmon, whose last outing was with The Hitcher, serves up this familiar recipe with some elan. In the opening, Van Damme breaks from a jail-bus to a sports car while the bus skids on its side like a box along the floor. There's also a smart, brutal shock just when boredom is beginning to bite.

The problem is Van Damme's dual role as heart-throb and bone-crusher. He's acted off the screen by the villains, and the romance embarrasses. To show what a decent, gentle fellow he is (despite a past in armed robbery), he's good with Arquette's children. He may have taken a shine to them when the little girl, Bree (a cheesy performance from Tiffany Taubman), spies him in the mandatory Van Damme nude bathing scene and tells her mother: 'He's got a big penis.' Mum reckons it 'average', having seen it in the mandatory shower scene. The violence is poorly edited, so we never see Van Damme's skill, just flying feet and wincing faces. The film's blithe approval of his brutality is disturbing too. When he gives Joss Ackland a last, gratuitous crunch against a car door, we close on a child's smile, as if this were the sweetest of happy endings.

Passenger 57 (15) isn't a gleaming original either. Wesley Snipes plays the lone line of defence against a team of airline terrorists, led by a fiendish 'British aristocrat'. Now where have I heard that one before? Die Hard, and sundry rip-offs, of course. The plot of the individual overcoming the forces of international crime seems to be the favourite fairy-story of the terrorist age. It's a sure-fire winner, but thrives on a careful mix of space and claustrophobia. The field of play must be enclosed, but large enough for the plot and special effects to roam free. In Passenger 57 there isn't enough room on the plane for varied heroics, so about halfway through we disembark for a clod- hopping chase at a fairground.

Snipes just about cuts it as the ex-security ace called into the fray one final time. The character is a cliche even older than the plot: the cop whose girl was killed and can't stop blaming himself for it. He seems at first too much of a dude, in his purple shirt and leather jacket, to be a surveillance supremo. But you kid yourself that his artistic streak is what puts him above the rest. You can't kid yourself that Bruce Payne as the diabolic ring-master is doing anything other than a bad Alan Rickman impersonation, hamming the menacing monotone and missing the sardonic wit. He's not helped by the script, which gives him a teenager's idea of a cutting put-down, groping for grown-up-ness with long words: 'These are your emotions reacting without the benefits of intellect.' The film falls between mocking Die Hard and oafishly aping it.

James Cameron's 1989 film The Abyss (12) has been re-released with a few more leagues added to its vastness (it's now nearly three hours long). It opens with a quotation from Nietzsche: 'When you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.' It's a warning: The Abyss wants to be deep. It wants to be other things too: a pulsating underwater thriller, a romantic comedy and a mystical heart-warmer for starters. Cameron juggles genres as well as giant pieces of marine machinery. The film starts as a Cold War thriller with a new-age beauty (the image constantly flips between the marine, video and real worlds), a precursor to The Hunt for Red October, but ends as Close Encounters of the Watery Kind.

The 28 restored minutes, trying to plug the gaps, slow the pace - the last thing the film needed. Ed Harris plays the head of an underwater oil rig, seconded by the US government to explore a wrecked nuclear submarine thought to have been sabotaged by the Reds. But Harris's estranged wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), brains and bane of the crew, bumps into alien life forms, who use water to influence Earthly events. The added scenes draw out the search and underline the water-people's power, showing tidal waves set to engulf American cities. But the film remains broken-backed, and the aliens ridiculous: eagle-shaped jellyfish, with fairy-lights rimming their wings like glitter on a pearly king's coat.

The two worlds - thriller and ethereal - don't fuse. Viewers may now not make it to Harris's epic dive to defuse the nuclear device, breathing, like a foetus, on liquid oxygen and communicating with those above by typing on

a computer keyboard. His helmeted face looks large and lilac, and a bilious black comedy seeps through as he loses lucidity. While he plumbs the depths, the film hits the heights with some of its most spectacular, cerulean shots. Cameron should have rescued this nervy thriller instead of piling on the mystic bilge.

Dani Levy's I Am from Mars (15) is a comedy about a Polish woman in New York. The style veers towards documentary and silent movie, and the humour is deadpan, stranger than Stranger than Paradise. Maria Schrader plays Silva, who arrives in New York in lace-frilled blouse, looking like an Anita Brookner heroine. She works as a glum waitress, swims in the sea, sees the sights, sleeps with two men and never smiles. The film focuses on her relationship with two Italians, representing the good and the bad of the American dream, its graft and its greed. Their double-act is out of Pinter: 'She's sick.' 'She's got a screw loose.' 'She's from another country.' She goes as placidly as she came. The film opens and closes at the airport, watching feet as if shot by a dwarf or a chiropodist; it never sets its sights high enough.

Sue Gaisford's radio column has been held over for lack of space. It returns next week.