FILM / Mean streets full of corn

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The Independent Culture
'GOD, I love this dirty city,' croons Burt Lancaster, playing a ruthless Broadway columnist in Sweet Smell of Success, which BBC 1 gave a timely airing this week. Alexander Mackendrick's film nosed around the night-life of late-Fifties New York and filled its nostrils with the sour whiff of corruption - blackmailing press agents, unfaithful husbands, venal cops. It is exactly the desperate urban symphony that Night and the City wants to be but can't. Irwin Winkler directs at a suitably agitated lick, the dialogue keeps up a rapid- fire momentum, the soundtrack belts out a raucous medley of rock'n' roll standards. All this, plus Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange - and it still doesn't work.

Remodelling and updating the 1950 Jules Dassin thriller, Night and the City tells an archetypal New York story about the little guy out for a piece of the big time. De Niro plays Harry Fabian, an ambulance- chasing lawyer who gets in over his head when he tangles with crooked boxing promoter Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King) over a trumped-up lawsuit. Harry feeds on competition: he lives to hustle, and down at his local bar he grandstands for the crew of regulars and his married girlfriend Helen (Jessica Lange). So what if his ethics are as bent as a corkscrew? At least he's straight about it. The trouble with Harry is that he doesn't know when to leave well alone; having lost the suit he pursues a lame-brained scheme to launch a boxing night of his own.

Winkler tries to convey the amphetamine buzz Harry gets from scoring off the big shots, but casting De Niro in the role is a mistake. Unlike our own patron saint of the main chance, Arthur Daley, De Niro hasn't the permanently aggrieved air of the underdog. He's far too ingratiating, and wants so much to be taken for an amiable rogue that we soon see him for what he is - a cheap chiseller. No matter that he gulls Helen with a fake liquor licence and squanders her savings, Harry's got 'a good heart', so we're asked to cut him some slack. I'm afraid this conception of his character just doesn't click, and the rat-tat- tat who-are-you-callin'-a-schmuck line of patter which writer Richard Price has cooked up for him only serves to whittle away our sympathy.

Mind you, at least De Niro has been given a character, even if it is charmless. Poor old Jessica Lange has been saddled with a part so thinly written it feels almost offensive. Given her resourcefulness and courage in trying to escape her violent bar-keeper husband, it doesn't make sense for her then to fall for someone as slippery as Harry. This misjudgement ties in with the film's larger problem: Winkler seems unable to decide what kind of picture he wants Night and the City to be. It might be a love story, except that romance hardly gets a look in. It could be a boxing movie, only there isn't a single fight. (The way the movie has been marketed even suggests that Winkler and Co paint it noir.) Comedy, violence and melodrama jostle for supremacy, and the film ends up being about not very much at all. The tone wobbles right through to the set-piece climax, which allows De Niro a flashy monologue that's intended to be his lifesaving performance: I'm sure I wasn't alone in finding it corny and embarrassing. The upbeat ending merely underlines a failure of both nerve and direction. Night and the City prowls the mean streets, handles some tight corners - and then slides harmlessly into the nearest parking space.

Boxing cleverer, if not much more inventively, is Midnight Sting. An old-fashioned fight picture, it stars James Woods as wise-ass con- artist Gabriel Caine, hot out of jail and itching for a fresh scam. He finds one in Diggstown, a hick community which happens to be the county capital of prize-fighting. Presiding over the town is the villainous proprietor, John Gillon (Bruce Dern, in sleazeball overdrive), who apparently 'won' the place some years ago in a high-rollers' bet. Of course he cheated, so Woods plots to set things right by beating Dern at his own unscrupulous game. To this end he recruits his erstwhile boxing protege Honey Roy Palmer (Lou Gossett Jr) to take on 10 different opponents within 24 hours.

Ordinarily, the pairing of James Woods and Bruce Dern would be an ideal opportunity to determine which of them wins the award for Most Unpleasant Laugh In Cinema. Dern, that soft, high-pitched voice quavering with menace, is quite perfect at this sort of snaky charmer - he ought to be, given that he's played the same thing since The King of Marvin Gardens 20 years ago. The case of Woods has proved rather more intriguing. He started out as the natural heir to Dern's creepy suavity, went through a high-stress ballistic phase (Salvador remains, surely, his personal best), and of late has been trying to loosen up and straighten out.

Midnight Sting strikes a compromise between Woods old and new - he flashes the tough-guy credentials but doesn't frighten off the love interest (Twin Peaks heart-throb Heather Graham in a laughably undeveloped role: it's not a good week for love interests). As the champion slugger, Gossett is fine too, though his resilience after a day's vicious pummelling defies all laws of medical probability. For the rest, it's an entertaining though scarcely original round of double-crosses, side- bets and low tricks. Midnight Sting throws a decent punchline, but it's a fair way short of a TKO.

Pick of the crop is Deep Cover, a tense urban thriller scripted by two writers of impressive pedigree, Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Henry Bean (Internal Affairs). The offhand wit and literacy that animated those movies are in evidence here, as is a hefty measure of bone-crunching violence, without which no weekly film round-up is complete these days. John Hull (Larry Fishburne) is an upright cop recruited by a narc- squad honcho (Charles Martin Smith) to penetrate the LA drug underworld and nail a cocaine baron whose connections stretch to a top Latin American dignitary.

Required to field at deep cover and still be on hand for close catches, Hull realises he has a talent for street-dealing ('Being a cop was never this easy') and, having joined forces with a middle-class attorney (Jeff Goldblum), he begins to enjoy the trappings - limo, penthouse, Versace threads. It can't last, of course, though the duo's nemesis - a Born Again cop - might have been more rigorously thought out. Fishburne is terrific as the ambivalent hero, and his deadpan voiceover lends a noir-ish tint to the moral murk. The wild card, however, is Goldblum: he lightens the film with a clowning wit and the exuberance of a nice Jewish boy who can't believe his luck. In this hair-trigger atmosphere we fear for him making a fool of himself, but he carries off even his daft lines with a kind of puzzled intensity: 'A man has two things in this world,' he reflects, 'his word and his balls. Or is that three things?'

If nothing else, Schtonk] can boast membership of one of cinema's most exclusive genres - the German comedy. A spoof on the Hitler diaries affair, the film lays about those involved - scoop- crazed hack, incompetent forger, megalomaniac tycoon - with a heavy satirical broadsword. First- time director Helmut Dietl seems to be making a point about collective gullibility as much as the enduring nostalgia for the Fuhrer, but the film's way with a gag is so thumpingly crass that pretty soon we cease to care what the point might be. The frontiers of Teutonic mirth will remain, one suspects, a mysterious and frightening region.

'Night and the City' (15): Odeon Haymarket (839 7697). 'Midnight Sting' (15): MGMs Fulham Road (373 6990), Oxford Street (636 0310); Trocadero (434 0031); Plaza (497 9999); UCI Whiteleys (792 3303). 'Deep Cover' (18): MGMs Haymarket (839 1528), Oxford Street; Trocadero. All numbers are 071.