FILM / On release: Action man, take '94

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The Independent Culture
He's mean, green, on the screen, and still as expressive as a Ninja Turtle: in On Deadly Ground (15), Steven Seagal is a soft-spoken firefighter who turns out to be a highly trained government trouble-shooter (if this sounds familiar, it's because you saw Seagal's last film, Under Siege). Michael Caine is in a big rush to open a new oilrig even though the safety equipment is defective because, if he misses the deadline, the land will revert to the local Inuit. He's a double-dyed baddie.

This film provides a useful pocket guide to the iconography of the Nineties action hero. Caine (with brunette hair and brown contacts) is a dandy in a bouleau tie always fussing about his suit. Seagal, by contrast, has become very much like what Douglas Coupland called in Generation X a 'bleeding ponytail' (ponytails were once the exclusive prerogative of villains in Hollywood, but now they're acceptable and even sometimes obligatory). A rugged, back-to-nature sort in a natty range of fringed and beaded, leathery, furry designer-ethnic gear, he ponders such questions as: 'What does it take to change the essence of a man?' Even his name - Forest - is faultless.

New Action Man is happy to stand by while rednecks boast about their big balls and call him 'cupcake' and 'pansy'. He has read Robert Bly and knows that this kind of beery macho swagger is just a cover- up for deep-seated sexual inadequacy. He listens to the ancient wisdom of Native Americans, and undergoes a mystical epiphany.

But he will quietly step in if need be; he also knows that non-violent protest can only go so far. When he has to, he kicks ass, but with a conscience; he will blow up a rig in what looks like the biggest environmental disaster since Chernobyl, but muttering all the while about safety procedures. He's a wolf in non-endangered species' clothing.

New Action Man also understands that the word can be mightier than the Uzi. So, at the end of the film, he holds a five-minute peroration praising renewable energy sources and berating big business (Time-Warner, the multi-media conglomerate which paid for On Deadly Ground, please note). It's a cherishable scene destined to become a kitsch classic. Steven Seagal also directed this picture.

It's hard to imagine British audiences flocking to a movie called Chamberlain; why, then, when so many fine international films languish without a distributor, should anyone buy Petain (12) for UK release - especially since the film itself, directed by Jean Marboeuf, is so downright dull?

And yet the subject has potential: the aged Marechal (Jacques Dufilho), who at 84 became the head of Nazi- Occupied France and was compared by his peers to Joan of Arc and to Louis XIV, but was in reality a puppet leader. The film aims to suggest how an essentially well-meaning man could perform inhumane acts and how easily a nation follows where a leader treads.

But it never gets a purchase on either of these themes. Petain is a fusty pedant forever buffing and polishing his speeches, a member of the French Academy in pursuit of the mot juste. Frankly, he's a bore. The film doesn't get under his skin, or that of Laval (Jean Yanne), his wily Foreign Minister and eminence grise.

There are subplots supposed to show that not all the French were cowardly collaborators - a Jewish cellist fighting deportation, a young cook who joins the Maquis - but they're barely more than sketched in. Meanwhile, Petain dozes, Laval chain-smokes and the film plods along, serenely untroubled by anything that would justify its 133 minutes. Quiet days in Vichy indeed.