FILM / To die for? Not exactly: IP5 (15), Hard Target (18), Amongst Friends (18), Paradise (15), Benefit of the Doubt (18), CB4

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The Independent Culture
YVES MONTAND gave his final - some say fatal - performance in Jean-Jacques Beineix's IP5 (15), dying shortly after the shoot. A weird, almost spectral presence, his character seems headed for the grave, if he hasn't just come from there. He first appears in the back seat of a car, giving us, and the pair

of young drifters who stole the vehicle, a ghost-like shock.

Later, when a cagey comradeship has grown between the three outsiders, he introduces them to the pantheist pleasures of nature - tree-hugging and gibberish-shouting, mellowing out by bellowing out. Montand's cowl-like anorak and smile of rueful suffering make him look like a monk. And sometimes he seems of a higher order still, standing, arms outspread, in the glow of a clearing, or walking on an invisible jetty into the sea. Although his face and flesh are harrowingly aged, he looks divine.

He's certainly Beineix's idea of a god. Ever since his brilliant debut, Diva, Beineix has worshipped at the altar of the outsider. His heroes have been stubborn loners, pursuing outlandish passions: vengeance for a dead sister (The Moon in the Gutter); literary fame and self- immolating love (Betty Blue); or just the daft desire to become a lion-tamer (Roselyne and the Lions). In IP5, Beineix has three such non-conformists. The pair Montand joins are graffiti artist Tony (Olivier Martinez) and his young sidekick, Jockey (12- year-old Sekkou Sall).

This unholy trinity is linked, on its picaresque journey from Paris to Toulouse, by a quest for love. Montand is searching for the woman who jilted him years earlier; Tony, egged on by his urchin mate, is after a nurse, Gloria (Geraldine Pailhas), who spurned his affections, and fled the city after he spray-canned her house in misplaced hommage. The character of Gloria is woefully underdeveloped. Beineix has always been stronger on the chase than its quarry, but here the desire is almost an abstraction, so thinly realised is its object. That may be what he wants - to contrast an old man's love, remembered but rapturous, with the hard urgency of youth - but it makes the film seem dry and self-indulgent.

Your feelings about IP5 will depend on how far the characters charm you. For me they fell way short of the mercurial Zorg and Betty Blue. Montand has a fragile majesty, but his companions are callow and cruel. Beineix seems to want us to applaud their behaviour simply for being anti-social. At one point Jockey complains of Gloria: 'She doesn't realise he's a hero, and he loves her like crazy.' But to us Tony's a horny vandal, who turns abusive when snubbed. Beineix always gives us startling images - though he seems to have lost some sparkle since his great cameraman, Philippe Rousselot, decamped to Hollywood - but the scripts are becoming airy. The brilliant iconoclasm of Diva has turned into adolescent doodling.

In Hard Target (18), Jean-Claude Van Damme meets John Woo and the consequence, predictably, is mayhem. Van Damme is an out-of-work seaman hired by a young woman to trace her missing father, who turns out to have been killed for sport by a bunch of entrepreneurs, purveyors of manhunts for the hateful rich.

That's the plot, but with Woo it's only ever a parade ground for his arsenal of lethal weaponry and cinematic technique. The violence in Hard Target both repels and thrills: it starts with painful realism - the agonising crunch of bones as Van Damme takes out some assailants - but soon spirals into comic-book excess. One high-speed, high-mortality motorcycle chase leaves you laughing at its absurd brilliance, like a gravity-defying gymnastic feat. Woo even tops it, at the end, when Van Damme, on a horse, is harried by a helicopter.

This is Woo's American debut and it's not as individualistic as his Hong Kong gangster films, but there's also less of his sentimentality and corny humour. The performances are more consistent too. Van Damme makes us believe in his invincibility, which is all that's asked of him. And, as the villains, Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo have a stony brutality that has us rooting for their come-uppance without being able to laugh them off. Vosloo's shady-eyed South African, Van Cleaf, is a particularly fine piece of nasty work, a proud professional who eschews anger in favour of pure sadism. Is the film more than a killing machine? A few of Woo's trademark doves flutter in and out, but they're just flight relief from virtuoso viciousness.

Rob Weiss's Amongst Friends (18), a gangster rites-of-passage tale, owes much to Mean Streets and Goodfellas - reminiscing voice-overs, bustling hand-held camera, boys bonding and boiling over - but it has its own slender charm. Weiss's young hoods, intriguingly, come from the right side of the tracks, sons of well-off Jewish Long Islanders. For them crime is not so much a way out as a dropping-out. We know that arrest, disgust and death await them, but Weiss has some fun matching each with his fate. He also has a feel for the Jewish community's humour and self-made lucre.

In some of the best scenes, the boys do business with an aged Jewish jeweller, who began in crime in the days when it was a way up the ladder rather than an escape from the top. His disgust with the boys disappears when he learns he broke the law with one of their grandfathers. With his partner, Fish, a wizened old man with Zimmer-slow speech, the jeweller forms a double act that might have stepped out of the old-couples scenes in When Harry Met Sally, and rises above the fuzzy acting around it.

In Ruby in Paradise (15), a young Tennessee woman (Ashley Judd) starts a new life in Florida, working in a tacky knick-knack and beach-gear shop, falling in and out of bed with the boss's slimy son and a nihilistic intellectual. She confides it all to her diary - and us, unfortunately. The film is as listless as its self-absorbed heroine, but it was praised sky-high by American critics, who must have mistaken moodiness for profundity. Or perhaps they were impressed by Ruby's questioning of the deeper things in life. 'Where does caring come from?' she asks, after stonewalling us for most of the movie. 'And why are we, all of us, so often scared?' I'll pass on that one; and also on Judd's much-vaunted star potential. She's certainly different here - disconnected, wary, slightly frosty - but the film doesn't give her the chance to shine.

Benefit of the Doubt (18) is the week's second Scorsese rip-off Donald Sutherland leaves jail after a 22-year stint, nursing a grudge against justice, and set on menacing the person he feels betrayed him (his daughter, Amy Irving). Anchors aweigh, and get that watery climax ready - we're heading for another Cape Fear. Except we hit Cape Farce, as the film runs aground on some rocky dialogue. As a leading man of the Seventies, Sutherland defied the laws of movie aesthetics, with his gaunt frame, bulging eyes and rabbit teeth. Now he's reverted to the types Hollywood reserves for such unconventional features: flakes and villains. He strikes the odd note of startling menace, but each one is lost in the surrounding symphony of absurdity.

Rappers will lap up CB4 (18), a mock documentary about a feted rap group, Cell Block 4. The film, with its vigorous obscenity, reflects rap itself. This isn't Spinal Tap, but at least it's as scornful of the musicians' cynicism as of their opponents' self-serving censoriousness.

Cinema details: Review, page 106.

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