FILM / Accent on the ridiculous: Legs and co - Tom Cruise in Ron Howard's Far and Away - Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth reviewed

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After Days of Thunder, which he dragged to world box- office takings of dollars 195m, Tom Cruise must be reckoned the Hollywood equivalent of The Little Engine that Could. People want to see him no matter what, and for the time being his presence is enough to lend the most inert project a little momentum. He may even have the box-office muscle to get Far and Away (12), Ron Howard's rather underpowered period romance, rolling towards profitability.

The part of Joseph, who leaves Ireland in the 1890s to find land in America, offers Cruise a chance to try an accent, and the opportunity to deliver some perkily anachronistic dialogue ('There's a goat over there, go improve your love life,' he tells his nasty brothers at one point). It also gives him a new physical skill to master or simulate - bare-fisted boxing - since Joseph has, in the course of adolescent brawls with the nasty brothers, providentially invented the sport in its modern form, and is able, despite his bantam stature, to take on all comers when he arrives in Boston.

Before emigrating, Joseph comes to kill the cruel landlord who has caused an eviction notice to be served on his father's very coffin as it makes its way to be buried, and strikes up the usual antagonistic rapport with the landlord's high-spirited daughter, Shannon. In the sort of touch that Barbara Cartland routinely edits out of her first drafts, she throws a horseshoe at him. Do you think that means they will end up together?

The film tips its hat to its star at a few points in a way that breaks the illusion of the story. In one early scene, Shannon, left alone with the unconscious Joseph when her mother is called away in the middle of attending to a wound on his thigh, peeks under the pudding basin that has been left discreetly inverted over his naked groin. She peeks not once but twice, with a sort of shy greed that has more to do with Tom Cruise's status as a pin-up than with anything in 19th-century Ireland. The fact that Shannon is played by Nicole Kidman, who is also Cruise's partner off-screen, makes the scene either inoffensive or smug, according to taste.

Later on, in America, when Joseph and Shannon are posing as brother and sister and sharing a room but have not yet realised they were made for each other, Joseph mocks Shannon's mimsy style of washing clothes, and shows her how to do the job properly. As he hangs her pummelled blouse on the line, he reaches for the long-necked clothes pegs he has been keeping in his waistband with exactly the double-handed quick draw of a cowboy at high noon. When you need your star as much as Far and Away needs Cruise, you humour him with all the charming business you can come up with.

The climax of the movie, and the only part of it that begins to justify filming in 70mm, is a re-creation of the Cherokee Strip Land Race of 1893, in which three of Ron Howard's great-grandparents took part. The person who got to a piece of land first from a measured start owned it in law. For the race, Joseph must choose between a slow and steady horse and an unbroken one, a rudimentary piece of symbolism that would work better if he himself hadn't been portrayed throughout as somehow both wild and dependable. He chooses the steady one. Shortly afterwards, it drops dead. He must ride the wild one, then. As the race begins, he squares up to the magnificent untamed creature and says, 'I've no wish to fight you.' Then he punches it in the head.

How many people, outside Blazing Saddles, have ever really punched a horse? But that's not the point. It's a test of how much a star can get away with and with this scene Far and Away asks more of Tom Cruise than he can deliver. There are only two stars in the movies today who could punch a horse and have it not seem altogether ridiculous: Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery. Cruise isn't in their league, not just because he's too young but because his charisma is too neutral, too eager to please. Even when he is supposed to be smouldering, you know he is not thinking of anything much beyond Scientology or his work-out regime. When he broods, it's brooding Lite.

Ron Howard is a practised commercial film-maker, with a lot of experience of making palatable entertainment. There seems to be a certain amount of nervousness, all the same, in the construction of the story, telescoping climaxes that should have been satisfying separately if their devisers had any faith in them. Shannon's father reveals to his wife that she has been writing regularly from America; at the very moment when she is throwing herself on the cache of letters, a flaming brand comes through the window. Or again, when Joseph and Shannon are exploring their intimacy for the first time, in an empty house which they have broken into in their desperation, the music goes all wonderstruck, and they play Let's Pretend. He says, 'I pretend I love you,'; she says, 'I pretend I love you too,' and instantly the householder returns and grabs a gun.

Elsewhere Howard uses synthetic shock cutting to give the rather mild emotions of the story a boost. He cuts between Joseph landing a punch in the course of a fight, and Shannon collapsing on to her bed, though they aren't in the same space and she is only tossing and turning. Or he cuts from Joseph running in despair along a Boston street to an explosion in the Ozark Mountains eight months later, as if the two shots expressed the same thing.

His camera work is less showy than his editing, except for a crane shot near the beginning of the film, when Joseph's father is dying. The camera rises with the injured man's soul, slyly peeps at the eternity of the sky, and then returns to the body so that Joseph's dad can deliver his last words ('Without land, a man is nothing. Land is man's own soul'). This New Age sequence, which is repeated at the very end of the film, remind us that Ron Howard was the director of Cocoon.

The America of Far and Away may be a place of opportunity, but it is perversely homogenous. Ethnic diversity begins and ends at Boston Harbour, where we see some Jewish immigrants. Black and oriental faces are hardly visible. We are supposed to be shocked that some employers don't hire Irish on principle, but not that the Irish consider Italians subhuman. There are no social problems in the film either bigger or smaller than a cruel landlord.

This begins to make a crazy kind of sense only at the end of the film. When Joseph, staking his claim at last, shouts 'This land is mine. Mine by destiny,' everything becomes clear. It is no coincidence that the story starts in 1892 and that the film should be released exactly 100 years later. Another anniversary is being not so much celebrated as exorcised. When brave white people take possession of a land that bears no traces of earlier habitation, Ron Howard comes up with his own little creation myth for America, free of such inconvenient original sins as genocide and slavery. Something is celebrated that can no longer be comfortably associated, in this anniversary year, with the name of Columbus.

Far and Away opens tonight; see facing page for details.

(Photograph omitted)