FILM / Fencers with blunt edges

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The Three Musketeers (PG) - Director: Stephen Herek (US)

Free Willy (U) - Director: Simon Wincer (US)

Ethan Frome (no cert) - Director: John Madden (US)

My only reference to The Three Musketeers was that it was a great candy bar,' says Chris O'Donnell, who has been conscripted to play D'Artagnan, the ingenu, in this rehash of Alexandre Dumas for the Young Guns generation. It is reassuring to know that Europe's cultural heritage is in safe hands.

The result, amazingly, isn't a complete disaster. The director Stephen Herek has made a number of undemanding films which ended up a good deal better than their titles would lead one to expect: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead and The Mighty Ducks. He does a workmanlike job here and the action scenes are more than adequately handled.

But this is a film without any particular take on its material. The makers haven't quite gone for the comedy of Richard Lester's lusty send- up, but nor are they playing it exactly straight. The main angle seems to be that - gasp of astonishment] - the musketeers are played by young men, but this isn't as ground- breaking as it sounds: Errol Flynn, after all, was only 26 - hardly over the hill - when he became a star.

Tim Curry plays the nefarious Cardinal Richelieu as one of those limey-accented villains whose curling lip seems to signal a supreme disdain for the Hollywood trash he is gracing with his presence. Actually O'Donnell - who held his own recently as Al Pacino's stooge in Scent of a Woman - isn't bad as D'Artagnan; he's a likeable, goofy presence (if a bit Valley Boy), and seems to do most of the tricky stunts. And Oliver Platt makes a big, sweaty, sarcastic Portos.

The weak links are Charlie Sheen (albeit a noted swordsman: he's the latest name cited in the Heidi Fleiss scandal) as Aramis, the religious musketeer, and Kiefer Sutherland's Athos, the lovelorn one, who both take themselves much more seriously that the enterprise deserves. There should be a better reason for re-making The Three Musketeers than to provide a vehicle for whiskery Bratpackers whose careers are on the skids.

As buddy movies go, Free Willy has a slightly more novel premise. It's a blubbery whale-bonding picture about the relationship between two misfits: a crazy mixed-up boy and a crazy mixed-up orca. Jesse is abandoned and semi- delinquent; Willy is penned up alone in a tiny tank in a run-down marine park, the victim of greedy capitalistic entrepreneurs. They're soul mates under the skin.

Free Willy was a big hit in America last summer but it's hard to see why: it's a thoroughly old-fashioned family film, to be sure, and there are few enough of those around these days, but an insulting minimum of wit and invention has been spent on both the story and the script (early example: 'Willy gets into moods. You've gotta give him his space').

Faced with the difficulty of attaching the audience to this big, sleek, mysterious creature, and imputing to him sentimental feelings of his own, the film-makers give up early in the game. Jesse serenades Willy with his mouth organ. Willy sprouts water and saves Jesse's life. 'You saved my life,' the boy says, in case we missed the point. Later on he says, 'I love you.'

The film bursts with political correctness: Jesse's mentor at the marine park is a noble Native American who reads him Indian lore (you just know that, when Willy is duly helped to freedom, it will be a re-enactment of the ancient legend). The publicists are trying to contain damaging reports about the fate of the real whale which plays Willy, which is still in captivity in an amusement park in Mexico. And, especially, given the unfortunate connotations of the film's title, they are probably wise not to make too much of the fact that Michael Jackson sings the theme song.

Ethan Frome rides into London on the Age of Innocence ticket: it, too, is based on a story by Edith Wharton dealing with forbidden love. But, instead of Manhattan opulence, a bleak, rural New England austerity presides over this melodramatic tale of a farmer caught in an explosive and tragic menage a trois with his hypochondriac wife (Joan Allen) and her pretty cousin (Patricia Arquette).

The melodrama caught Hollywood's eye: Bette Davies, Gary Cooper, Jane Wyman and Charlton Heston were cast in various aborted adaptations. The current version stars Liam Neeson, who has just been Oscar-nominated for his role in Schindler's List. Here, he's a big presence in both senses, gentle, passionate and tormented; he continues his progress towards Hollywood's A-list of leading men.

Ethan Frome is an American Playhouse (ie telly) production; on the cinema screen it still looks pretty, but has an over-conscientious, study-guide feel, more Middlemarch, really, than Age of Innocence. The mainspring of that film was the tension between the story's cramped, repressed passions and Scorsese's febrile visual style. But Ethan Frome is a plod (the director, John Madden, has a background in theatre and TV) - it's so slow it deflates all the sexual tension that ought to crank up those intimate, interior scenes to breaking point. And it lacks Innocence's crucial extra layer, the ironic, conspiratorial, waspish narrator's voice. But it does at least have the nerve to adhere to Wharton's shockingly bleak, ironic

climax.

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