FILM / Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Kevin Jackson on the release of James Cameron's director's cut of The Abyss, with a restored 28 minutes of footage. Plus Nowhere to Run and I Was On Mars

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REVIEWERS who give away the endings of films can be held indefinitely under the Prevention of Spoilsports Act (1922) and with some justice. However, since it would be virtually impossible to describe how James Cameron's new director's cut The Abyss: Special Edition (12) differs in any substantial way from the regular old Abyss without mentioning its last half-hour, the risk of legal action must be taken. Readers who missed it four years ago, or who happen not to have heard rumours about what was really lurking down in that deep-sea trench, are advised to skip several paragraphs to the title Nowhere to Run.

For the rest, a swift reprise. The Abyss was, by reasonably common consent, a promising yarn about a pranged nuclear submarine, an impending hurricane and a rescue attempt by a team of undersea oilmen and Navy SEALS, which went hopelessly soggy when it made the mistakes of trying to be sensitive (with a risible, and indeed faintly demeaning sub-plot about how the crisis turns 'Queen Bitch of the Universe' Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio back into a nice loving wifey for her stubble-headed man, Ed Harris) and then trying to be spiritual (with the revelation that the ocean deeps are alive with friendly fluorescent aliens).

Special Edition restores 28 minutes' worth of film from the cutting room floor, and now runs at 2 hours 51 minutes. It's easy to see why Cameron wanted that footage back, and easier still to see why he was well advised to lose it in the first place. There are, admittedly, one or two new moments that do have dramatic point, as when the redneck oil crew all sing along to Lowell George's trucker's anthem 'Willin' ' while trundling their rig across the ocean floor. This mundane pop-cultural note is funny and even charming, and, like the Garfield puppet stuck unobtrusively on one of the rig's portholes, it also serves nicely to sharpen the sense of how uncanny and hostile the aquatic world can appear.

As for the rest. . . well, just like Conan the Barbarian, Special Edition kicks off with a line from Nietzsche, about gazing into the abyss and the abyss gazing back, and Cameron does his level best to live up to such heavy philosophical artillery by telling us at inordinate length that we need to look with better eyes (thank you, Le Petit Prince), and that all we need is love (thank you, Fab Four). This time around, it is made more explicit - via the news broadcasts everyone keeps watching in idle moments - that the rescue bid is taking place at a time when America and the then-USSR are on the brink of nuclear war. (Mikhail Gorbachev puts in a swift, and now nostalgic appearance.)

What's more, the aliens down below are well aware that humanity is about to wipe itself out, and are so appalled at the prospect of such mass slaughter that they have decided to jump the gun and wipe out humanity with gigantic tidal waves - a plot device that suggests that Cameron was too busy reading St- Exupery or The Will to Power to complete his course in Logic, but which does allow him some eye- stopping matte sequences of vast breakers towering over coastal cities.

The other notable addition to the latter stages of the film comes in Ed Harris's solo plunge down the deep trench - a protraction that might draw the tension to even more agonising degrees were it not that Ms Mastrantonio has to wade her way through an almost unbelievably maudlin solilioquy about how her love for him is like a candle in the dark and so on. This sequence, like so many in the last hour or so, is a forcible reminder of the literal meaning of the word 'bathos'.

For all this (and worse), it is still good to have the film back on the big screen again for a while, since Cameron is one of the few present-day action directors whose work really is diminished by video formats. He can build tension well, orchestrate action deftly and has a nice line in tough-guy wit when he manages to forget that he has a planet to save by teatime. The first 40-odd minutes of Special Edition remain about as gripping as anyone could reasonably wish, but seeing Cameron compounding the errors of his original Abyss by piling on the cosmic portent is like watching a captain wilfully scuppering his own ship.

Further proof that action movies require at least a dash of finesse and originality is provided by Nowhere to Run (15), which is abundantly lacking in both. The thick ears and thicker accent in this one are provided by Jean-Claude Van Damme as an escaped convict who, despite his witty habit of smashing elderly warders in the face, proves to be a decent chap at heart and certainly a thousand times more agreeable than all the bent cops, English property developers (Joss Ackland accepted the cheque) and other low-lifes who are menacing the comely widow (Rosanna Arquette, wasted) on whose land he decides to camp.

The script, by Joe Eszterhas and the late Richard Marquand, is so routine that the video may eventually come into its own as a handy alternative to an egg-timer. It's odd that films that exult in chaos and destruction should be so neat and finicky in other respects, but Nowhere to Run is yet another case in point. The widow's young son (Kieran Culkin, brother of the richer Macaulay) moons over mementos of his late father; enter Van Damme, just oozing with latent paternal gifts. Those mementos include an old gun; and when the final shoot-out comes. . . ah, there's no fooling some people. Robert Harmon directed.

The rigidity of Nowhere to Run is such as to tempt one to indulgence of the more random, not to say rambling structure of Dani Levy's I Was On Mars (15). A German production filmed on a number of ratty locations in New York, it follows the misfortunes of Silva (Maria Schrader), a Polish woman of murky ambitions and murkier past, as she ties to make her way in America and is robbed, molested and otherwise put upon by everyone in sight. The old immigrant tale is spun with a few fresh touches, and the low budget sent Levy into some of Manhattan's less exposed districts to fair effect. The film grows progressively less engaging, though, when it gradually slides from pathos into would- be quirky comedy as Silva takes up with a pair of ugly losers, one of them played by the director. Its early stages persuasively convey the grubby tedium of a slide into poverty; its latter half is simply tedious.

(Photograph omitted)