FILM / The last Apache: Sheila Johnston on Geronimo, the best western to come out of America since Unforgiven. Plus other new releases

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The Independent Culture
Geronimo (12), Director: Walter Hill (US); To Live (12), Director: Zhang Yimou (China); The War of the Buttons (PG), Director: John Roberts (UK); Monkey Trouble (U), Director: Franco Amurri (US); Sparrow (12), Director: Franco Zeffirelli (Italy); Threesome (18), Director: Andrew Fleming (US)

'I feel the dull roar of Geronimo not making money at the box-office. The euphoria about Schindler's List is rising.' Last December Geronimo's die had already been cast in America, as Larry Gross, the film's co-writer (with John Milius), recalls in a diary for Sight and Sound magazine. Punters thrilled to Steven Spielberg's epic about the Holocaust, but weren't quite as keen to see a film about the genocide on their own doorstep. But this is the best movie from Walter Hill - a once-important director who has lately seemed to have dissipated his promise - for many, many years - and the best western to come out of America since Unforgiven. It is opening in London on a single screen.

Unlike gimmicky recent attempts to revive the genre, Geronimo isn't a black western, nor a female western, nor even a bratpack western. It's a classical story, directly told. In 1885, the US government stepped up its campaign to take possession of Apache territories, relocate the existing occupants, crush resistance and obliterate a culture and race. A quarter of the entire army - 5,000 troops - were despatched to corral one man, Geronimo, the last Apache leader. The result was a foregone conclusion, but when we see, for the first time, a train cutting a swathe through the virgin landscape, signalling its colonisation and bearing Geronimo (who had believed the 'iron horse' would be his salvation) off to life-long capitivity, the impact is as shocking and as strong as the Auschwitz sequences in Schindler's List.

Geronimo is a mature, morally complex film. Unlike in the patronising Dances with Wolves, these Indians aren't just a painted backdrop to the real - that is, white - hero's spiritual journey. Nor are they plaster-cast saints: Hill doesn't shrink from showing their cruelty. The West isn't peopled by clear-cut heroes and villains: it's a place of divided loyalties, where North is pitted against South (the two cavalry officers sent to bring in Geronimo are both Southerners), American against Mexican and Apache against Apache.

Geronimo's feel-bad factor wasn't the only thing keeping American audiences away: Hill and Milius are both associated with the action movie, but this is a spare, elliptical, slow-burning story, with an often literary feel. But it gradually builds up a powerful head of steam. The cast is first-class, from the little-known Jason Patric as the officer who was charged with Geronimo's arrest and became the army's fall guy, and Wes Studi, an actor with a wonderful film face, in the title role, to old-timers Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall in a rare teaming together. It would be a very great pity to see these glowing landscapes on the video screen.

To Live, Zhang Yimou's new film, follows a Chinese family and its roller-coaster fortunes over four decades. At Cannes the film seemed disappointing: it's much less formally adventurous than Zhang's previous work, and covers territory already well familiar to international audiences from films like The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine. Even the governing image of the puppet troupe manipulated by the lead character - who, in turn, is jerked around by forces beyond his ken - has popped up recently in the Taiwanese film The Puppetmaster.

Re-viewing To Live in London, away from the festival's other heavy-hitters, it was easier to appreciate the engaging performances (the cast includes the ubiquitous Gong Li) and Zhang's quiet, elegant craftsmanship. The many set-pieces include a superb battle scene where the hero bumbles from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists into the Red Army, and a chilling, absurdly funny hospital sequence where - the senior obstetricians sent off for re-education - a birth is botched by some teenage Red Guards. This is history as black farce, but the conclusion remains optimistic, echoing the double-meaning of the title in Chinese - to live and to survive.

The War of the Buttons, David Puttnam's remake of a 1962 French film about the rivalry between two gangs of kids, transposes the action to south-west Ireland, and the setting lends an odd subtext (underlined by frequent references to Irish history) to its tale of debilitating inter-tribal warfare. The film is studiedly vague as to period - Puttnam says it is notionally 1979, although the folksy hand-knits and absence of popular culture (no one seems to watch TV or listen to rock music) makes it feel much more old-fashioned. But at last, a children's film unblighted by merchandising plugs]

Monkey Trouble, a film of virtually no merit, passed the time agreeably. Its hero, a cute monkey, is a highly-trained pickpocket re- educated by the little girl he befriends. The film is directed fast and fluidly and is lifted by the mildly mind-boggling spectacle of Harvey Keitel as a gold-toothed, fake-tanned, bandana-wearing, Bronx-accented gipsy. I especially liked his no-nonsense answerphone message (to be delivered in a threatening growl): 'It's a machine. You know what to do]'

It's probably kindest to say of Sparrow, a lush Romeo and Juliet- style melodrama set in 19th-century Sicily, that's it is not one of Franco Zeffirelli's best. We look forward to his current project, an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Eddy, the narrator of Threesome, is gay and has a crush on his room-mate, who has the hots for the (female) Alex, who in turn nurses an unrequited love for Eddy: the raw material of an existentialist nightmare (see Jean Paul Sartre's Huis Clos) turned into a broad co-ed comedy. As an amiable superoik who makes Butt-head look like a New Man (and who has all the best lines), Stephen Baldwin steals the movie, which is somewhat spoiled by a charisma-free central performance from Josh Charles as the closet case. Some scenes are badly misjudged, others very funny. And the take on sex and sexuality is very curious indeed for a mainstream Hollywood studio picture.

(Photograph omitted)