FILM / Wyatt Earp: how the West was worn

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Wyatt Earp (US) (12)

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway

(US) (12)

Director: Randa Haines

Darkness in Tallinn (various) (nc)

Director: Ilkka Jarvilaturi

A Tribute to Jean Renoir (Fr) (nc)

Director: Jean Renoir

In spite of everything, the American cinema is still a celebration of national identity and cohesion - and what better to express that than a rousing Fourth of July fireworks display? Gunpowder still, for Brits, carries a faint whiff of sedition. But in Hollywood, starbursts in the sky stand for patriotism and euphoria (and they look mighty pretty, one of the easiest special effects in town). They're a great visual cliche of the modern cinema.

Fireworks herald the scene when Barry Levinson's starry-eyed immigrant enters the Promised Land at the beginning of Avalon. In last week's Blown Away, where the nation is threatened by an Irish terrorist, innocent Independence Day rockets are juxtaposed with bombs. In Wyatt Earp, they signify an individual's maturation, the moment when he finds for himself a niche in society, when Kevin Costner, as the legendary law-enforcer and gunman, perfects his draw and disarms his first opponent against a big, self-important fireworks display. And yet, in a film that's neither revisionist, a la Unforgiven, nor simple hagiography, this Earp sits uneasily as a national hero.

The director, Lawrence Kasdan, goes for the epic splash: Wyatt Earp moseys along for some 200 minutes. The first hour, delineating Earp's early years, has the feel of an extended prologue: patchy, fumbling, not quite yet on the move. Moustaches sprout suddenly; characters flit in, and disappear. Earp is a green, unformed youth, his psyche tractable to the hard imperatives of his father (Gene Hackman, intoning 'Nothing counts as much as blood. The rest are just strangers') and fate (the loss of his

beloved first wife).

The end, too, limps on interminably. There's a superb sequence when the bad hats pursue the Earp family on to a train in a climax full of fear and foreboding. But then the film jump-starts itself for further stretch, stumbling towards a peculiar coda where Earp, late in life, is congratulated for a youthful act of heroism which he may or may not have committed. 'Don't worry - it happened,' says his companion, and the conclusion seems to be 'print the legend': perpetuate the myth, whether or not it's a fake.

The great puzzle in Wyatt Earp is Wyatt Earp. He's obsessed with family loyalty, and yet his brothers are dull nondescripts - but then perhaps that's an intentional irony. He's a stern lawman who mows down all around and precipitates the death of everyone he loves, while sailing through to the ripe age of 80 without being grazed by a single bullet. He's a moralist capable of treating his women abominably. The gunfight at the OK Corral, which the movie builds up to in flashback, is a squalid little squabble in a dark alley.

As an actor, Costner lacks the power to pass off all this as a bag of fascinating contradictions. Long ago, a group of young French critics pronounced Charlton Heston an 'axiom of cinema', a claim less daft than it first appears. Axioms of cinema don't need proper scripts; they have the gravitas, the presence to fill out the thinnest role. Clint Eastwood, Heston's rightful successor, could have carried off this Earp. But Costner, Hollywood's dullest star, isn't an axiom, only a cipher. The film flickers briefly alive with the arrival of Dennis Quaid as an alarmingly cadaverous Doc Holliday, who, like other Doc Hollidays before him, steals the movie from under Earp's nose. Perhaps Doc - sickly, clever, cynical, loyal - is a more compelling modern hero. Give this man his own movie.

The fireworks blaze again in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. Two old codgers - Robert Duvall as a courtly Cuban barber, Richard Harris as a hell-raising Irish- American sailor, both living in lonely retirement in Florida - are on their way to witness the display. But Harris produces some whiskey, and they collapse on the bank of a river. Duvall frets that they are missing the splendour until Harris - as rockets fire on all cylinders in the night sky - points out that they virtually have a front-row seat. The moment cements their new friendship - and for Duvall, the reluctant Cuban immigrant, offers up a tiny slice of the American dream.

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway is another Hollywood pitch for the grey vote, in the wake of Grumpy Old Men earlier this summer. A few years ago, America's ageing population made hits out of Driving Miss Daisy and Cocoon. But this year's offerings have failed to reproduce that success.

Hemingway has its pleasures - for a start, the fresh central pairing. Unlike Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who simply amble through their old tricks in Grumpy Old Men's tired odd-couple combo, Harris and the ever-excellent Duvall are always watchable and unpredictable. The film's weakness is its slack, sometimes trite plotting: curiously, like Grumpy Old Men - written by a 25-year- old - this is the work of a first-time, 21- year-old scriptwriter. It's a young man's fantasy - or nightmare - of old age. Maybe that's why these two buddies spend most of their time in the fruitless pursuit of women and, like many buddies before them, take refuge in the unthreatening securities of male bonding. Or perhaps, on reflection, we shouldn't be surprised at all that boys in their seventies should share much the same preoccupations as boys in their late teens.

Darkness in Tallinn is a real oddity: a dark political heist thriller from Estonia shot in black-and-white. In the capital of the newly independent Baltic republic, citizens prepare to welcome home the country's national treasure, which had been sequestered in Paris during Soviet rule. But a team of Russian mobsters plans to engineer a city-wide blackout and to spirit away the gold in the confusion.

This intriguing and original film smacks vaguely of The Third Man: most obviously for the political setting - a country in flux and confusion - and for its strong sense of moral corruption, but also for the elegant, angular monochrome photography. There are some amusing characters (I liked the chain-smoking Russian gangster who keeps a long strand of uncut cigarette dangling behind his ear) and the chaos of the black-out sequence is impressively handled. As usual with first-time films, the problem is the script, which fails to tell its story coherently or to build suspense. A daft melodramatic conclusion features the most enormous premature baby ever seen.

At the re-opened Riverside Studios in London, a tribute to the master film- maker Jean Renoir, who this year celebrates his centenary, provides the week's sweetest treats. Une Partie de Campagne (1937) is based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant and has the lyricism of a painting by Renoir's father, Auguste. In it, a family of Paris tradesmen go on a fishing trip where the daughter experiences a tiny flash of happiness in the arms of a mooneyed young man before being cruelly pitched back into her drab existence. The film lasts a fleeting 37 minutes and, in that flash, tells us everything.

It plays in a double-bill with The Crime of Monsieur Lange which, made at a time of political turmoil (1935), is a sharp anti- capitalist comedy: the crime in question is the murder of a shark who threatens an idealistic collective publishing venture. Renoir is much too big a softie for this to be a simple polemic; his simple (but rare) achievement is to love his characters, even the charming, silken-tongued cad who is meant to be the villain of the piece. And few directors have filmed their women with an equal radiance: in Une Partie de Campagne, the over-ripe, Rubensesque mother is allowed her own special beauty.

Another commendation, finally, for a retrospective devoted to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, those irrepressible mavericks of British cinema. The season juxtaposes favourites like A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes with slightly lesser-known fare: a personal favourite is the weird blend of the perverse and the poetic in A Canterbury Tale. These films are more familiar than Renoir's (and the season contains no real rarities) but they will be a revelation on the big screen, and in brand new prints.

(Photograph omitted)