TWO FILMS this week shared a similar fate: both were wrested from their director's hands and completed by their star, though in neither case do you feel that a masterpiece may have gone begging. Payback is a brutal revenge thriller, originally under the control of Brian Helgeland, who was hired and then fired by Mel Gibson. The latter plays Porter, a career criminal who robs a Chinese payroll of $140,000, only to be double- crossed and left for dead by his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and his partner, Resnick (Gregg Henry). But you don't get rid of a tough guy like Porter so easily. How tough is he? Well, he steals loose change from a beggar, beats up a weedy heroin dealer and narrates the story in a tobacco-kippered growl - that tough.
The movie follows Porter around the mean streets of Chicago as he tries to get back his share of the loot from Resnick. This involves squaring up to various foes: a mysterious organisation called The Outfit, the Chinese he originally robbed, plus two bent coppers. Gibson is aiming for the affectless, force-of-nature pose that Lee Marvin perfected in Point Blank - both movies are based on Richard Stark's novel The Hunter - but, unlike Marvin, it's the self-love of the actor rather than the self-possession of his character that comes through. He probably thought it was brave to play someone so determinedly charmless, little realising that he hasn't been charming for years. But we're still expected to go "ooh" and "aah" as he bursts through doors and blasts holes through people.
Helgeland, or whoever ended up directing, has no fear of a cliche. Gregg Henry has a stage-villain twitch that's pure comedy, while a call-girl becomes Porter's convenient love interest; there's also the ancient absurdity of a scene in which Porter impassively takes a savage beating, but winces when a woman cleans his wounds.
Nothing about Payback convinces: not its bleached-out retro look, nor its gloating, designer violence, nor the cool machismo of its leading man. For all it says about life outside the movies, it may as well have been called Paycheck.
The British ad director Tony Kaye also lost control of his debut feature, American History X, during its protracted editing, and disowned the cut which the film's star, Edward Norton, finally put together.
Norton's performance actually turns out to be the only reason to see this facile and meretricious drama about neo-Nazism. He plays Derek, an articulate high-school student who is taken on as protege of a racist militant (Stacy Keach) and begins to rally the disaffected youth of Venice Beach, California, in the cause of white America. After serving a three- year sentence for killing two black men, he emerges from prison not only changed but determined that his younger brother (Edward Furlong) will not succumb to the same racist instincts as he did. The idea is worthy enough, but the variable script and Kaye's distracting visual pedantry keep bringing the film to its knees. Why prefigure a jailhouse rape scene with a shot of cascading water that's straight from a shampoo commercial? Why use so much slo-mo? You can take the director out of advertising, it seems, but you can't take advertising out of the director.
Norton, with his delicate features and tough, wiry body is a magnetic presence, inhabiting the role with a conviction that grips even when the drama is at its clunkiest: once he stars in a decent movie things should become interesting for him.
After these helpings of garish nouvelle violence, it's with relief that one escapes to the civilised confines of an Eric Rohmer film. Conte d'Automne completes his quartet of seasonal tales, offering a typically gentle essay in love, friendship and viniculture. It concerns Magali (Beatrice Romand), a fortysomething wine-grower in the Rhone valley who feels lonely since her children left home. Two matchmakers set about finding her a man: her son's girlfriend Rosine (Alexia Portal) has lined up her former philosophy tutor (Didier Sandre) as a candidate, while her best friend Isabelle (Marie Riviere), more ambitiously, has found a man named Gerald (Alain Libolt) via a lonely-hearts ad, with a view to passing him on to Magali.
Rohmer nudges along the story via long sequences of dialogue in which various pensees and points of view are mulled over. He is one of very few directors alive who prizes the virtue of listening - his characters talk to, rather than at, one another.
True, they sometimes behave with almost superhuman equanimity, as when Gerald discovers he's been, however altruistically, duped. It's hard to imagine people being quite so amusingly philosophical anywhere outside of a Rohmer film, but his elegant social comedies are imbued with such civility and kindness that you wouldn't deny him a small measure of wishful thinking.
Parents should brace themselves for two children's movies of awesome banality. Mighty Joe Young is King Kong for kids, relating the everyday story of an outsize gorilla that's uprooted from the African jungle and transported to a conservation park in Los Angeles.
Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron play its obliging minders, and considering they act for most of the time opposite nothing (the gorilla is computer- generated), they do a pretty good job. Still, I could have lived without it.
The Rugrats Movie is a spin-off from a TV cartoon much beloved of tots. Having heard my teeth grind through its rash of nappy jokes and goo-goo voices, all I can say is that they're very welcome to it.
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