Film: Rot in high places

CITY HALL Harold Becker (15) BROKEN ARROW John Woo (15) NELLY AND MR ARNAUD Claude Sautet (PG) THE NEW AGE Michael Tolkin (18)
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The Independent Culture
There's a mess of ideas and ethics at the heart of the riveting new thriller City Hall, reflecting the jumble of writers who took turns on the typewriter. These include Paul Schrader, Goodfella Nicholas Pileggi, and Bo Goldman, who scripted Melvin and Howard, and co-wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. From the emphasis on father/ son relationships that hangs over the film, I wouldn't be surprised if Arthur Miller had stuck his oar in on the sly.

The driven screenplay relentlessly traces the slug's trail of corruption from pavement to penthouse, but it's the recurring theme of tarnished patriarchy that forms the film's core. It's not even a case of the father's sins being visited upon the son - if only the glum New York presented by the director Harold Becker were that ordered. Here, the sins of the father are visited upon other people's sons.

Walking to school with his dad, a six-year-old boy is killed when a street- corner rendezvous between a cop and a crook erupts into gunfire. The mayor (Al Pacino) and his deputy (John Cusack) are worried: whose bullet dropped the boy? There are other troubles. Cusack's investigation into the probation report that left the convicted criminal, a junior Mafioso named Zapatti, on the streets reveals foul-ups and misjudgements. Local government desk potatoes offer the same response when faced with examples of their own ineptitude: "I made a mistake. What else can I say?" But those errors start to look calculated, implicating everyone from the judge (Martin Landau) who was soft on the hood, to a Democrat leader (Danny Aiello) who counts Zapatti Snr as a friend.

Although this is all effortlessly absorbing, Becker doesn't pretend that rot in high places is anything new. So you're more impressed by the raw human turf that gets turned over during the investigation, rather than the efficiency of the digging (that stood out in Becker's 1989 thriller Sea of Love, too). Pacino has some grandstanding moments, like at the child's funeral where he delivers a bellowing, stammering speech that leads his character down the narrow path between epiphany and egotism.

As the sappy-hearted, Carousel-crooning politician, Danny Aiello is better here than he's ever been, and it's really his film. For a great lumbering Italian-American, there's a tragic vulnerability in his creased-up eyes and fumbling baseball-glove hands; he has always looked like a man on the verge of blubbing. You think that his passion for Rodgers & Hammerstein is superfluous, until the mob need him as an ally and the double entendre in the word "sing" smacks you in the mouth (you want to weep with him when he realises it, too).

There are moral inconsistencies, but City Hall is dazzling whenever Becker shakes the foundations of powerful men, wringing blood from the stony offices and chambers. He has a keen visual sense; the picture is draped in greys (which may be too literal an interpretation of Pacino's comment about political shades) save for one striking splash of colour - the yellow of the murdered child's mackintosh. You watch the rest of the picture through the stain that it leaves behind on your eyes.

Conversely, the only lasting effect Broken Arrow has on you is a deadening of the eardrums, and the spirit. This is John Woo's second attempt to crack Hollywood (this time with a script by Speed man Graham Yost). And though he still handles comedy the way a two-year-old child handles a physics set, it's endearing that he hasn't budged - his combat scenes are gorgeous ballets, he can barely contain a fetishistic lust for uniforms, and he shoots an explosion as though it's full-on intercourse.

John Travolta plays a military pilot who fakes a Stealth bomber crash, pinches the nukes with intent to ransom and is hounded around the Arizona desert by goody-two-shoes Christian Slater. There are nods to everything from Stagecoach to Mad Max 2, but for all the numbing violence, you're most repulsed when Woo betrays a sentimental streak - cutting to a pair of inquisitive deer seconds before a nuclear bomb goes off, or riding on the wings of a butterfly moments after the explosion. He wants peace and nukes. He could have a future in the White House.

Two miniature curiosities worth seeking out: Nelly and Mr Arnaud is an understated portrait of the almost-affair that blooms between an elderly judge (Michel Serrault) and Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart), the young woman whom he hires to transcribe his memoirs. It's an impeccably crafted, good- humoured character study jazzed up by a succulent cameo from Michael Lonsdale, the hangdog's hangdog.

Michael Tolkin is best known for having written The Player, but his own films - The Rapture and now The New Age - are even more scathing and unforgiving. Peter Weller and Judy Davis play an affluent LA couple who rearrange their lives when they find themselves jobless. They do what we'd all do: take lovers and open a shop selling pricey tat. Like his characters, Tolkin loses his way a little, but his spiteful digs are always underpinned by a genuine social concern and regret. "How are your morals tonight? Do you know the difference between good and evil? Do you care?" Tolkin doesn't have any answers, but it's just nice to be asked.

n All films on release from tomorrow

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