Film: Make whoopee not war

Also Showing: SGT BILKO Jonathan Lynn (PG) CUTTHROAT ISLAND Renny Harlin (PG) BALTO Simon Wells (U) LAWNMOWER MAN 2 Farhad Mann (12) DUNSTON CHECKS IN Ken Kwapis (PG)
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The Independent Culture
Let's face it: in the days following the unveiling of Toy Story, most films are bound to appear a little staid, a touch conventional. But even if they didn't have Disney's imposing bootprint of technology to contend with, this week's new releases would still possess all the appetising allure of a prime British beefburger. These are movies long past their sell-by date, wedged in other eras, peddling ready-made nostalgia which has you thanking your lucky stars that they don't make 'em like this anymore.

I'm not convinced that the 1950s series The Phil Silvers Show, which spawned the swindling Sgt Ernie Bilko (played by Phil Silvers), was a pivotal point in television comedy. And Jonathan Lynn's film version, starring Steve Martin as Sgt Bilko, has done nothing to persuade me otherwise.

Bilko is a crook whose sheer exuberance is so infectious that even his superior, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd), never really lets rip when he finds a horse in the motor-pool or a pack of greyhounds tearing across the parade ground (there's a scam or a bet unfolding in every corner of the base, every minute of the day). The film goes hunting for laughs in the way that outsiders attempt to upset Bilko's juvenile equilibrium: the strait- laced young officer (Daryl Mitchell) who tries to clean up the platoon; the persistent fiancee (Glenne Headly) who wants Bilko to commit to her; and the grudgeful Major Thorn (Phil Hartman) who returns to settle an old score.

There's a lot of energy and motion in the picture, but it simply isn't funny, and it's not Martin's fault - he's as supple as he was in The Jerk almost 20 years ago, his eyes fizzing and sparking, lighting the film up when it's at its most drab. Nor should Lynn take the blame: he keeps the movie ticking over, and he has a snappy way with slapstick (it's comforting to know that the sight of a man toppling off a bar-stool can still be a giggle). But frenzy can only distract you for so long. The screenwriter Andy Breckman should know the value of a pointed zinger from his years sculpting routines for David Letterman. Yet he seems to think that a vague sense of inanity will plug the holes where the gags should be (that's the difference between a smart revamp like The Brady Bunch Movie, and a lousy one like this or Maverick).

Sgt Bilko still has something of a wild heart (though Breckman tries his darnedest to tame it). For this is a film which doesn't just tolerate dishonesty and laziness in the military, it positively rejoices in it. Major Thorn is a prissy dunderhead, and the movie's villain, yet he's the only officer dedicated to preserving the army as a viable and realistic means of defence. If I didn't know better, I'd think there was something subversive in Sgt Bilko's dogged celebration of the US army's incompetence. Breckman's script says: Make whoopee, not war. Now if only he'd remembered to tack on a few jokes, he'd be home free.

More proof that America nurtures its imbeciles comes in CutThroat Island, a lumbering swashbuckler with Geena Davis embarking on a quest for buried treasure (when she should obviously be embarking on a quest for a new agent). She has one-third of a treasure map, but to obtain the remaining pieces, she has to trust a dashing ne'er-do-well (Matthew Modine) and confront her wicked uncle (Frank Langella).

There's no finesse to Renny Harlin's interminable picture, and little understanding of the most basic technicalities of action cinema: the photography is drab and inert, the interiors clumsily lit, and the continuity scrappy, while as a Margaret Lockwood-style heroine, Davis is all at sea. Half the time the dialogue is inaudible, and when it isn't, you wish it was. (Is it comic when a man grabs a woman's behind and declares, "Let's get to the bottom of this"? No, I didn't think so.) I prescribe a brisk stroll along the gangplank for all involved.

Things aren't any better for kids. You could take yours along to Balto, a tiresome animated true story about Alaskan sled-dogs, but they'll only resent you for it in later life. It's so flatly drawn that it has the opposite effect of the finest animation - it actually appears to recede from the screen as you watch it. I can't think of any purpose the film might have, though in giving Phil Collins some voiceover work, it probably delayed the recording of his next album by a month or so. Here's hoping.

For the really undiscerning adolescent, there's Lawnmower Man 2, which has some inadvertently hilarious lines ("How many times have you postponed this man's prosthetic legs?" a doctor asks her colleague earnestly). No logic or rhythm, though. And the computerised effects (including a few splashes of virtual reality) make Atari's "Frogger" look sophisticated. The youth of today may be disenchanted, uneducated drug addicts, but they're not dumb enough to be suckered by this tat.

I'm not sure if Dunston Checks In really is the most engaging film of the week, or if it only seemed that way because it was the day's last screening (you know what the sight of the finishing post can do to perspective). But no - this jaunty and vacuous farce about a simian cat- burglar loose in a plush hotel is breezy, and sportingly played, too (by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander, who has impeccable timing, and the pipsqueak Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman, and Dunston the orang-utan). Sometimes it's nothing more than a cross between Fawlty Towers and a PG Tips ad, but it makes monkeys out of the week's other contenders.

All fims are on release from tomorrow