FILM / A really bad Dwight in: Sheila Johnston reviews the charming This Boy's Life, John Woo's Hard Target and Me Ivan You Abraham

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The Independent Culture
AS Anthony Minghella observes this week (see interview opposite), the hard sell is growing harder. We might bemoan the fact that The Fugitive is squatting in Warner's new West End multiplex in no less than four screens, but it's increasingly difficult to lure viewers into the equally as good, but lower-profile pictures playing next door.

For a while it looked as if This Boy's Life (15), Michael Caton- Jones' second American movie (after Doc Hollywood), wasn't even going to surface in London: a charming story and the presence of Robert De Niro, in his best role in quite a long while, weren't enough to sell the picture either in America or even in Caton-Jones's native Scotland, where it opened quietly last month. But the distributors have taken the plunge, This Boy's Life arrives today in London and, low-concept notwithstanding, it would be a pity to miss it.

Based on the true story of the writer Tobias Wolff, it's a coming- of-age drama set in Fifties small- town America. The teenage Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is heading steadily towards juvenile delinquency until his flighty divorced mother (Ellen Barkin) hooks a new suitor, the dorky Dwight (De Niro). Encased in wild checks, oozing awkward chivalry and windy compliments ('you folks are lucky to live in a house with a cup of coffee like this'), Dwight is the butt of Toby's scorn: the film's early scenes glint with sly comedy.

Then his mother marries this loser, for the security as much as anything, and he turns nasty and vicious, with the meanness and malice of a man for whom life has turned sour - De Niro makes you understand the character and even pity him. The screenplay contains many grey areas - the Barkin character disappears into a vacuum, Dwight's kids barely figure and Toby's sexuality is curiously ambiguous (his only close relationship is with a campy young gay). But the bitter-comic power struggle between him and Dwight is the focus of Caton-Jones's attention and both De Niro and his young adversary reward him with subtle, memorable performances.

John Woo's publicists can scarcely be accused of underhype - it has been impossible to ignore the premature scramble to canonise him as a supremely commercial auteur. The great unintended irony may be that, in the West, Woo's appeal is primarily to a small cinephile in-crowd - his first American foray (Hard Target, which stars Jean Claude van Damme and opens here next month) has grossed a very middling dollars 30m there so far.

On the strength of Hard Boiled (18) and the re-released The Killer (18), I'm unconvinced that Woo is an outstanding talent. Sure, the action scenes are arresting, artistic even, if art consists of shooting everything simultaneously from a zillion angles, and spinning out the high-speed choreography to breaking point with overlapping cuts, slo-mo and freeze frames.

Brilliantly edited, these are mini-primers on 1,001 ways to film a gunfight. Woo won't be the first non-American director to fall in love with the gangster genre. But, where Europeans like Melville, Godard and Fassbinder translate it into moody, existential indecision, Woo extracts the kinetic energy: self-doubt is still there, but far less prominent. The bits between his bullets involve buddy love affairs, and romantic gangsters and disillusioned cops whose ethics are interchangeable: standard stuff.

Woo slips in some cute gimmicks (a gun hidden in a volume of Shakespeare's collected works, coded messages in bouquets of white roses despatched to a policewoman, a cop and a gangster who nickname each other Dumbo and Mickey Mouse). And an outrageous sentimentality flirts with kitsch with an audacity that few American directors would dare match - a blind singer whom the hero pledges to cure, in The Killer; a ward-full of gurgling babies (their ears solicitously plugged with cotton wool balls) whom he rescues from a burning hospital in Hard Boiled.

The humour is on the unsophisticated side. A typical Woo gag: smouldering from a fireball, Hard Boiled's hero-cop is helped out with a well-aimed stream of urine from the baby on his arm. But you feel that all this is rough basting - the characters are under-nourished, the dialogue exchanges competently but unremarkably shot.

And, strangest of all, although the appeal of Woo's films is partly built on their exotic orientalism, there's little feeling for milieu. His infatuation with US pop culture has a poignant edge: like many colleagues, he's heading Westwards well before 1997. But it's only the odd blaze of neon lights or vista of the city's spectacular bay that hint at his setting; the vaguest sense of apocalypse which betrays that these desperate scenarios are unfolding in a country on the edge of explosion.

Me Ivan You Abraham (no cert) launches the ninth Jewish Film Festival on Monday. Set in Thirties Poland, it's about two young boys, a gentile and an Orthodox Jew, who run off together. It's a poetic, lyrical piece, but not, one suspects, the liveliest or most exciting in this eclectic programme.

(Photograph omitted)