CINEMA: Wenders without the Wim

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WHATEVER happened to Wim Wenders? He's often talked about in hushed tones as the last of the philosopher-directors, a heavyweight whose work should be examined in deadly earnest. He's president of the European Film Academy and holds an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne. But as the accolades have piled up, so coherence has deserted him. There's little in his sprawling new film, The End of Violence (15), that suggests he has reversed this trend. It has nothing to compare with the airless languor of Paris, Texas or the ethereal monochrome of Wings of Desire. Instead, it offers ill-digested satire on American culture that's unimproved by stretches of clunky dialogue and a perversely awful central performance from Andie MacDowell - her delivery of a speech that begins "my husband's love is like a shiny sky-rocket" is the sort of thing that makes people walk out of cinemas.

The plot is complex: Mike Max (Bill Pullman), a producer of violent movies, escapes death at the hands of a pair of kidnappers and hides out with a gang of Mexican gardeners. In his absence, his wife, Paige Stockard (MacDowell), takes up with Six, a toothsome rapper (K Todd Freeman). Above Los Angeles, former Nasa scientist Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne) is constructing a network of surveillance cameras that the government hopes will end social disorder by bringing all action under the gaze of the authorities.

An intriguing story, but Wenders insists on telling it in a peculiar style that is half milk-and-water David Lynch, half awkward sermonising. Though he wants to condemn the violence inherent in American culture, his film relies on sensational flourishes - a shocking slaying; the laceration of a stuntwoman; an intruder hiding behind a flapping curtain; MacDowell in her underwear brandishing a revolver - for its most effective moments. His prescriptions for the end of violence are suspect: Mike Max gives up making exploitative films, Six renounces gangsta and joins a creative-writing group, the FBI keep everyone in their sights. Apart from one arresting scene in which Max's non-white company makes him invisible to his pursuers, the small matter of poverty and social exclusion goes uninvestigated - in fact, the film idealises the poverty of its Mexican characters in a way that I doubt many LA Chicanos would appreciate.

And as Wenders tussles with these issues, his habitual delight in self- reflexive in-jokes only increases the feeling that The End of Violence is a film unjustifiably besotted with its own superficial cleverness. According to a poster we see on an office wall, Mike Max's film Creative Killing is directed by Wenders himself. What are we to make of this? Is it a sly admission that The End of Violence uses violence to achieve its ends? Does it suggest - like Mary Whitehouse - that confusion between movies and reality causes violent behaviour? Or does it, perhaps, mean absolutely nothing at all? I'm afraid I can't tell you. I hope that Wenders can.

The Winter Guest (15) is Alan Rickman's directorial debut, and stars Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson as a mother and daughter wrestling with the consequences of bereavement in their home, an icebound village on the coast of Scotland. Sounds promising, doesn't it? Unfortunately, despite aiming to cover a range of Big Issues - death, parenting, sexual awakening, childhood, friendship, ageing - Sharman Macdonald's adaptation of her own play is disappointingly thin, and even the furiously energetic performances of the leads can't overcome the script's monotonous talkiness. Theatre and film have radically different rhythms, and dialogue that might have sounded extraordinary on stage is reduced by celluloid to a jabber of counterfeit Pinterisms. As a director, Rickman doesn't seem to have the sensitivity to the differences between these media that he exhibits as an actor. There's an uneasy disjunction between close-ups that focus on actors acting, and wider shots that slot the cast into a phoney computer- generated snowscape. On stage, you can freeze an ocean with a line, a look and a change of lighting. Here, a team of digital artists have laboured to produce a wintry landscape that would be fine for an episode of Star Trek, but which won't settle comfortably with the psychological realism to which Law and Thompson's performances aspire.

Don't be fooled by the title of The Jackal (18). Instead of remaking Fred Zinnemann's fastidious techno-thriller, Michael Caton-Jones has transformed it into a post-Cold War melodrama in which Muscovite mafiosi say, "I will kill you and your fucking whore mother," and FBI men hurl insults like, "Witherspoon, you by-the-book asshole!" Bruce Willis is the assassin of the title, Richard Gere a gentlemanly IRA terrorist enlisted by G-Man Sidney Poitier to track him down. Most of which has as much do to with The Day of the Triffids as The Day of the Jackal.

As a vehicle for Willis's dumpy charms, however, this above-idiot-level action movie is near-perfect. It frequently feels like the actor's personal playground: he gets the lead role, he gets to look psycho in shades, and he even gets a scene with Leslie Phillips - surely a long-time ambition for any Hollywood star. He's also allowed to parade his versatility by assuming an array of fiendishly cunning disguises. (Most of these turn him into Homer Simpson's next-door neighbour - but hey, they're not as ludicrous as Val Kilmer's hairpieces were in The Saint.)

Bruce's most interesting assumed identity is a gay one, so take note - if you want to disguise yourself as a homosexual man, you'll need four things: a pink polo shirt, a linen jacket (slightly Don Johnson), a bottle of peroxide, and a nifty little yacht named Miss Garbo. What? No tight white vest? Absolutely not. This interlude gives Bruce licence to narrow his eyes and make like Veronica Lake, and facilitates his first homosexual screen kiss (with a Washington official played by Stephen Spinella). But Pub Man needn't worry too much, as a) Bruce guns down Spinella in his own beautifully-appointed kitchen, b) that old chestnut about homosexuality being a security liability is nicely reheated, and c) it's the moments of leering macho mania for which Willis reserves his gayest abandon.

A less roadworthy star vehicle is Picture Perfect (15), an undistinguished romantic comedy constructed around the painfully thin talents of Friends star Jennifer Aniston. Unless the sight of her fleshy bits sloshing around under Lycra is enough to keep you perky, then you're likely to be frustrated by her deeply unattractive character ("I am making money! I am loaded!" she sings to herself at one point). Our respect is not increased by her sexual fixation with the skeletally creepy figure of office slapper Kevin Bacon, like a Renaissance representation of Death fresh from a trip to Debenham's wig department.

Which brings us rather easily to Kissed (18), a film which - despite being about a teenage mortician who has sex with her rapidly stiffening clients - has more romantic warmth than Picture Perfect. Lynne Stopkewich's sensitive portrait of Sandra (Molly Parker), a nice necrophiliac girl, is full of tender surprises, and filmed with a firm, fresh colour sense.

The film refuses to sensationalise Sandra's taste for sepulchral sex. A scene in which she parks her hearse in a car-wash and shares an intimate moment with her coffined date becomes a strangely delicate reinvention of the backseat kisses from a hundred teen movies. Don't let the subject-matter put you off: this is a weird, witty, winsome film from a mortifyingly original talent.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.