FILM / Strutting the mushy stuff: A Few Good Men (15); A Winter's Tale (12); Tous les Matins du Monde (12)

AT THE start of A Few Good Men we get a bravura display of parade-ground dexterity: a line of dapper marines whip through a close drill, rifles sloped at lightning speed to give the impression of a domino collapse. Their movements have a giddy comic beauty - a split second out and the whole routine would be in disarray. It's the most enjoyable sequence in a movie that is itself excessively regimented.

Adapted by Aaron Sorkin from his own Broadway play, the film is a naval drama in the grand style. Tom Cruise stars as Lt Daniel Kaffee, a cocksure Harvard law graduate whose reputation for slick plea-bargaining excites the odium of his stiff-backed contemporaries. He prefers softball to the hard grind of entering a courtroom and presenting a case. So when the powers that be toss him a potential hot potato - the defence of two young marines accused of murdering the company weakling at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - he expects to put it straight in the guilty-as-charged file. Lt JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), passed over for the assignment, champions the accused and berates Kaffee for his artful dodging; stung, the hotshot squares up to his responsibility and gets down to the details.

Which are: did the accused intend their assault to be fatal, or was the victim's probable heart condition responsible for his death? Kaffee delves further and discovers that the two assailants were actually administering a 'Code Red', an unofficial punishment ordered by their immediate superior, Lt Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), acting on the authority of Col Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), the CO. With the starched-collar support of Galloway and Lt Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), Kaffee takes the case into court, not merely to exonerate the two marines but to expose Jessep on the stand as a Machiavellian monster.

The film locks into a mechanical rhythm as it strides from one set piece to another. There's an almost frantic determination to pump up the drama: we seem to be watching a confrontation every five minutes. Director Rob Reiner is after the lofty impersonality of a VIP (Very Important Picture) and you have to say he achieves it - but at what cost? He seems to be ticking off the genres with each film he makes: rockumentary (This is Spinal Tap), road movie (The Sure Thing), rite of passage (Stand by Me), fairytale (The Princess Bride), romantic comedy (When Harry Met Sally) and horror (Misery). Now, with three big names on board, this plunge into courtroom drama has been designed to make a bigger splash than any of them. As the atmosphere thickens with talk of loyalty, honour and justice, the film swells with the self-importance of being earnest. Reiner may think he's gaining prestige, but in terms of wit, subtlety and animation, he loses out.

And who better to help him lose all that than the bafflingly successful Tom Cruise? He tries to project thwarted brilliance - he's haunted by the memory of his overachieving father, an attorney and toast of the top ranks. But his strutting and fretting never convince. It's all one-note: he does nervous the way he does angry the way he does cocky. His performance is mush. His fuming-drunk act after a setback in court - not his fault, you understand - is the most embarrassing thing he's done since his stupid cue-twirling (or toe-curling) jive in The Colour of Money. Then at least there was Paul Newman on hand to slap him down: here, it's the hapless Demi Moore, understandably fazed by a rant that's meant to be witty but just sounds facetious.

In his showdown with Jessep, Cruise gets big cheers as he fells the big cheese, but he also gets a lesson in acting from Jack Nicholson. As the unreconstructed warhorse, Nicholson is riveting, a model of banked fury. When he's nettled in the witness stand, he keeps his head absolutely still while spitting out his lines as if they were poison. He conveys exactly the twisted intransigence of the self-righteous. If, as has been said, the pairing of Cruise and Nicholson is a face-off between Hollywood's old guard and the young pretender, then all you can say is that Cruise has a lot more pretending to do. The two men flash their big white teeth at each other, but it's really no contest. After too many one-man show-offs (starting with The Shining) Nicholson is back, albeit briefly, as a team player, and he's superb.

A Few Good Men could have used a few good ideas - extending Nicholson's role, for one; putting a lid on Cruise's shameless grandstanding, for another. More than that, it needed to loosen its collar and relax into its story. I longed for a moment of simple spontaneity, a remark or a gesture that didn't appear to have been cooked up by a committee. Reiner has gone for a crowd-pleaser and, in the process, made the least satisfying film of his career.

A Winter's Tale will not, in the long run, rate as one of Eric Rohmer's career highs either. The second in his Four Seasons cycle, it's a tale laboriously told. Felicie (Charlotte Very) works as a hairdresser in a Paris suburb and divides time between her bookish boyfriend Loc (Herve Furic) and her mother, who is looking after Felicie's daughter Elise (Ava Loraschi). She is also having an affair with her boss Maxence (Michel Voletti), who has bought a new hairdressing salon in Nevers and asks Felicie to join him. On a whim she agrees, and having bid adieu to an understandably hurt Loc she moves into Max's apartment, Elise in tow. Next day she decides she's made a mistake, and returns to her mother in Paris. The problem? Well, she's still hankering for Charles, the bloke she met on holiday five years ago and, what's more, the father of her child; unfortunately, she gave him the wrong address by accident, and hasn't seen him since. She loves Loc, but he's all polo-necked seriousness and Catholicism; she loves Max, too, but he's a bit of a plodder. In the meantime, they will both have to put up with her exasperating caprices.

A Winter's Tale is standard Rohmer, a slight but civilised moral exemplum worked out through a series of unhurried conversations and low-key epiphanies. These will enchant or infuriate, according to taste. There are fewer incidental pleasures this time, though I can think of no other director who would dare show characters having a discussion, only for one to break off and, without a glimmer of irony, inform a newcomer, 'We're having a discussion.' Rohmer sets up his fantastical denouement by having Felicie weep as she watches the redemption of Leontes at the end of Shakespeare's play, a blockish and hackneyed device. She may be flaky and skittish but, as her tears attest, she has poetry in her soul. The film engineers the cute meet to end them all, presumably to point a moral along the lines of faith being rewarded. Max and Loc, one suspects, would beg to differ.

For a film which truly has winter in its bones, try Tous les Matins du Monde. Based on the real-life relationship between two 17th-century musicians, it plays like a chronically subdued Amadeus. Gerard Depardieu musters a ruined grandeur as Marin Marais, an old court composer looking back in anguish on a career that rose at the expense of his mentor, M de Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Marin's reminiscences take us back to his youthful self (played, rather drippily, by Depardieu's son Guillaume) and his burgeoning expertise on the viol under Sainte Colombe's stern tutelage. The pupil went on to enjoy worldly success at court, while his master withdrew into hermetic integrity. What little drama there is concerns Marin's courtship and abandonment of Sainte Colombe's daughter Madeleine (Anne Brochet), who repairs to her bed and wastes away, thus crowning her suitor's remorse.

The film is achingly slow. I have no gripe with musical biopics, especially if they come decorated with eight Cesars; but the agonised ruminations and lengthy close-ups grind this one to a standstill. I had to glance at my watch more than once to check it wasn't going backwards.

'A Few Good Men' (15): MGMs Baker St (935 9772), Chelsea (351 1026) & Oxford St (636 0310), Odeons Kensington (371 3166) & West End (930 7615), and gen release. 'A Winter's Tale' (12): Chelsea (351 3742), Renoir (837 8402). 'Tous les Matins' (12): Gate (727 4043), Curzon Mayfair (465 8865), etc. All numbers 071-.

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