FILM / An unlikely kind of hero

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE really two films in Accidental Hero: a sparkling screwball comedy starring Geena Davis, and a dullish domestic drama with Dustin Hoffman. Davis is a television reporter, as thrusting as she's glamorous, digging dirt but dreaming of truth - her scenes sizzle. Hoffman is an ordinary Joe who becomes an extraordinary hero, saving Davis and a plane-load of others after a crash, only to see a guy who once gave him a lift (Andy Garcia) take all the credit. He's seen mainly scamming, and bothering his ex-wife (Joan Cusack), and his scenes splutter. There's a contrast in acting styles. Davis glides through newsrooms and network bulletins with perfect romantic-comedy manners, smiling while making a loon of herself. Hoffman brings Method to the madhouse, as twitchily observant as ever, but never lightening up enough to let us laugh. He's meant to be a dislikeable character, but he gives a dislikeable performance.

The film opens with grainy footage of Gulf war victory parades in New York - trailing ticker-tapes and American flags whose red stripes seem to bleed all over the screen. On the soundtrack there's a chorus of 'Auld Lang Syne'. It's a neat summary of the film's themes: America's desperate hunt for heroes, the media's collusion in that sport, and the unexpected benefits of remembering old acquaintances.

From this triumph we cut to a failure: Hoffman's Bernie Laplante, petty crook, grand whinger, and doting but dilatory father - a reprise of his shuffling, rasping Ratso in Midnight Cowboy. Late again for meeting his son (James Madio), Bernie realises he'll be later still when he finds a plane crashed across the road. More in the spirit of anything-for-a-quiet-life than altruism, he rescues the passengers, and skulks off into the gloom. When reporter Gale Gayley (Davis) emotionally appeals for 'the angel of flight 104' to accept her station's million dollar reward, vagrant John Bubber (Andy Garcia), swipes the cash, the plaudits, and the country's hearts.

As Bubber, Garcia, soft-voiced and gentle, is given slim pickings by the script but feasts on them. Riding the media merry-go- round, he turns out to be a natural. His shiftiness is taken for diffidence, and he says all the right things: 'If we help each other we can all be heroes together.' He can't open his mouth without putting a lump in the nation's throat. In for a dime and a place to sleep, he finds himself with a million dollars and a massive moral dilemma.

The highest comedy and crudest caricature come at Gayley's television station, where the journalists are like characters from Jacobean drama, all representing 'ambition'. There's a running gag with a cameraman (Kevin J O'Connor) imagining the citation on his award as he films catastrophe. Gayley is first seen asking if he'd caught a suicide jump. Davis goofs ecstatically like Katharine Hepburn, and has Cary Grant's knack of playing the lead and the fool. She carries off harridans, because beneath there's a winning wholesomeness. Here she's power-dressed, standing on high heels but not on her dignity.

The trouble with this formula picture is that the formula is about 50 years old: a cocktail recipe first mixed by Preston Sturges, who added some bitters to screwball. The plot is similar to Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero in which a white feather is lauded for war heroism, and there are most of the Sturges ingredients, especially the feeling of a world founded on false pretences. But director Stephen Frears gives them a lazy stir rather than a shake. As a commentary on celebrity and media distortion, it's not as telling or as funny as Alan Ayckbourn's play Man of the Moment, in which a bank robber achieves stardom while his victim languishes in anonymity. The screenwriter David Webb Peoples wrote the revisionist western Unforgiven. Here he's given us a revisionist comedy that needs a bit more revising.

In the credits of Body of Evidence I thought I spotted a 'SEX technician'. It turned out to be an 'SFX technician', a much less arduous assignment, though they must have had someone pretty advanced to explain what to do with those bedside spark-plugs. Like its randy lawyer (Willem Dafoe), the film hops between bed and court-room. Madonna plays Dafoe's client, accused of murder by sex. She has a thing about millionaires with weak hearts. Joe Mantegna gets the short straw as the prosecutor who has to claim that her body is the murder weapon. Soon, of course, Dafoe is complicating the case by leaving his fingerprints all over the evidence.

It would be fun to recommend this film as laughably bad, but it's dully competent. Madonna isn't as dire as they say; without her name she wouldn't have raised a murmur. With her platinum hair and pencilled eyebrows, her effortful beauty complements the ravaged Dafoe's creased face and tombstone teeth. But their sex scenes, on Madonna's houseboat amid hothouse flowers, lack charge: it's like watching synchronised swimming. Dafoe is unconvincing at quivering, enraptured submission - even when candle- wax is dripped over his genitals.

The film seeks to earn its sleaze with wordy court scenes. You'll have seen these a thousand times before in films like Jagged Edge and Presumed Innocent. The grand decor: pillars and portraits, leather chairs, and light streaming through high windows on to the marble floor. The jack-in-the-box counsels, jumping up every few seconds to say, 'Objection: Argumentative]', and, 'Allow me some latitude, Your Honour.' The grouchy judge, snarling responses to the jousting advocates, after a long close-up wrinkling of the nose or bulging of the eyes. Then the ebb and flow of the case, with its sudden turnarounds, crumbling testimonies and surprise witnesses. It's all as sedately eventful as a game of bowls.

The screenplay came from the over-heated brain of Brad Mirman, who's said to be living in Argentina, presumably in hiding. It makes a few half-hearted stabs at seriousness, with a cheekily played feminist card (Madonna as a woman victimised for being in control) and a bogus piece of symbolism, a childhood story involving strawberries, thorns and thighs. The film needn't feel abashed in the company of more acclaimed rubbish like Basic Instinct - it's roughly at that level. But by the end you feel like Frank Langella looks in his haunted performance as one of Madonna's ex-lovers: shagged out.

Dust Devil is 26-year-old British-based Richard Stanley's second film. It's a young man's film, showy and self-indulgent, reaching a lot further than it can grasp. But it makes a nice change to criticise a British film for over- ambition. South African-born Stanley has set the film close to home - in the Namibian desert. A jaded housewife (Chelsea Field) driving to the sea, picks up the Dust Devil (Robert Burke), who with his cape, hat and switchblade, combines Pale Rider mysticism with Hannibal Lecter social skills, preying on the faithless. Stanley sends his camera scuttling and soaring over the vast, chocolate desert, and has a gleeful eye for the grotesque: a cinema filled with sand, a morgue of charred, fragmented bodies like ruined Greek statues. There aren't many words; a good thing, as the thunderous narration is sixth-form bardic: 'Out of flat lands, she came blazing like an arrow into the West . . .' It goes on to video after two weeks, but it's big-screen or nothing.

'Accidental Hero' (15): Whiteleys (792 3324), Odeons West End (930 7615), Kensington (371 3166) and Swiss Cottage (722 5905). 'Body of Evidence' (18): Odeon Leicester Sq (930 3232). 'Dust Devil' (18): Scala (278 0051). All nos 071.

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