Film: A synopsis, not a script

Also Showing: COURAGE UNDER FIRE Edward Zwick (15) THE NUTTY PROFESSOR Tom Shadyac (12) LETTERS FROM THE EAST Andrew Grieve (nc) TOUCH OF EVIL Orson Welles (12)
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The Independent Culture
Courage Under Fire raises questions that you'd expect to find in an A-level philosophy paper, not a Hollywood movie. What is truth? Is there a definitive version of reality presided over by some omniscient referee? Or is truth the sum of many perspectives, complete with their various fabrications and contradictions? Phew. All this and Meg Ryan as an ace Gulf War chopper pilot.

Don't get too carried away, though. I didn't say that any of the questions were actually answered, or attended to, or given much more than a little squeeze. Most film-makers spend all their time trying to construct a convincing sequence of events that will pacify an audience and enforce, not threaten, their perception of reality. What do you think Edward Zwick, the director of Courage Under Fire, is going to do? Throw all that away? Question the very fabric of cinema? He may as well go and defecate on the Hollywood sign and be done with it.

His film unfolds in the months immediately after the Gulf War, when Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Sterling (Denzel Washington) is sifting through nominees for the Medal of Honour. He has to determine the validity of each case, but one candidate in particular is proving problematic. Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) was killed while commandeering a rescue mission. Sterling's task is to rebuild the events which led to Walden's death and decide whether she displayed the necessary courage to earn her posthumous reward. But first he must extract the truth from four conflicting accounts of Walden's behaviour.

The flashbacks soon reveal that it's not so much Walden's Medal of Honour at stake as Meg Ryan's first Academy award. She gets to act Joan Crawford tough in one version of her downfall, while in another she's snivelling like Stan Laurel. It's not her fault that her performance is so crude. She's been given four different ways to play suffering, but she's constricted by the film's structure: there's nowhere for her to take her character. The writer Patrick Sheane Duncan realises this, and decorates the movie with perfunctory character details. She was a fine mother. She never asked for help from anyone. It's film-making in shorthand; Duncan has written a synopsis, not a screenplay.

Denzel Washington has more to work with given that his character survived the war with plenty of psychological bruising after accidentally killing one of his own soldiers. The grainy prologue, which depicts the moment when Sterling realises he has scored a messy own goal, painfully captures the resonating clang of a very bad penny dropping. Imagine a moment of domestic panic multiplied by a million. I've left the oven on. I forgot to pay the gas bill. I blew up the wrong tank. The scene's sense of the mundane - unfussy camera work, dingy lighting, lingering close-ups - chills the heart. Of course, Sterling inevitably ends up courting alcoholism, proving that there's no such thing as too much woe in a weepy. But if the film is flippant about his symptoms, at least it handles his trauma with care.

And where does the quest for truth come into all this? Here and there. Courage Under Fire has attracted a few comparisons with Rashomon, but it uses its multi-perspective flashbacks to confirm the existence of a single truth, whereas Kurosawa's film was exploring the impossibility of just that. The two films only really converge once, in their sentimental final minutes, which reaffirm the good of mankind. That was always the only part of Rashomon that you watched, cringing through your fingers. Trust Hollywood to throw out the fruit and keep the rind.

After Courage Under Fire, Diabolique and Last Man Standing, it's refreshing to find a remake that doesn't have ideas above its station. Or rather it would be if The Nutty Professor (after Jerry Lewis's 1963 comedy) had any ideas at all. And if it didn't rely so heavily on flatulence as to make Blazing Saddles look like a Merchant Ivory production. And if it didn't star Eddie Murphy. As the elephantine Professor Sherman Klump, Murphy does some lovely light playing; he even gets so far as being understated. But after he downs a strange potion (it's a kind of nuclear Slimfast) he metamorphoses into the sleek stud Buddy Love and the old cackling narcissistic Murphy is unleashed. And it's like 1985 all over again.

The film actually acknowledges his struggle in the tugs of war between Sherman and Buddy, where homely egg-head and hedonistic gigolo literally wrestle for ownership of the same body. (Murphy also turns up as five other characters, for no apparent reason, unless he was taking home five separate pay-cheques). Whether Sherman or Buddy wins, Murphy comes out on top. Still giggling at women's bottoms, still equating masculinity with misogyny and still incapable of delivering a punchline without smothering it in his own self-congratulatory chuckle.

There's plenty of skill and sensitivity on display in Letters From the East, but not much soul. Andrew Grieve's disjointed film follows Anna (Ewa Froling) who leaves her London home for Estonia, where she hopes to trace the mother who she believed had died during World War II. But the further she progresses in her investigation, the more she realises how gnarled and knotted her family tree has become. Secrets are uncovered and old wounds tended to, in the glum way of these things. But the dreary pace, embarrassing plot contrivances and shaky performances severely diminish any passion which Letters From the East might once have had. What a score though: John Keane's string-driven main composition has a pulsating urgency that's missing from what's on screen. A case of great soundtrack, shame about the film.

A new print of Orson Welles's wicked 1958 thriller Touch of Evil opens this week, and it's really the only film around that you actually need to see right now. Why? For the opening never-ending tracking shot and the bold noir lighting; for the tightly woven plot in which a Mexican cop named Mike Vargos (Charlton Heston) must straighten the law by straightening out the law men - namely his grizzled US counterpart Hank Quinlan (Welles), dripping in bitterness, booze and corruption. And because it features Welles at his most imposing and monstrous, stalking the screen as if he owned it, as if he owned cinema itself. Which of course he did.

n All films are on general release from tomorrow