No smokers, hellraisers or drunks please - we're American

Rules of Engagement (15)) <i>William Friedkin, 127 mins</i> | The Wedding Tackle (15) <i>Rami Dvir, 98 mins</i> My Dog Skip (PG) <i>Jay Russell, 95 mins</i>
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Tommy Lee Jones is right at home in William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement. He plays Colonel Hayes Hodges, a soldier-turned-mediocre military lawyer. He's also an ex-drunk.

Tommy Lee Jones is right at home in William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement. He plays Colonel Hayes Hodges, a soldier-turned-mediocre military lawyer. He's also an ex-drunk.

"Ex-Land" is the dumping-ground for those attractive qualities which American heroes are now no longer allowed to brandish. So they're always ex-smokers, ex-hell raisers, ex-everything we love. With Jones, Hollywood gets it all: a face that suggests exciting damage (to look at Jones's face is to look at Dorian Gray's portrait, gathering bags and lines and bad deeds); and an actor keen to play men who no longer advocate wild behaviour - he was a probation officer in his last film, Double Jeopardy.

Hodges is retired and fly-fishing when his old friend Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L Jackson) comes to see him. Childers is in trouble. During the evacuation of the US Ambassador and his family from the riot-troubled embassy in Yemen, Childers ordered his marines to fire into the crowd of protesters, killing 83 people. Childers claims that the crowd were armed, and firing at his men, but no weapons were found amongst the dead.

The US Government and Army have turned their back on Childers, and are screaming court martial. Childers asks Hodges to defend him. Hodges has no choice - he owes Childers his life, following an incident in Vietnam. (The use of Vietnam in a film such as this is simply shorthand for "America has suffered too, you know".)

Even in this period of casual American xenophobia, Rules of Engagement is strikingly racist. The two main children in the film are a blonde American boy fixed to his mother's Chinos, and a disabled Yemeni girl hiding a huge gun under her pink mini-dress. But racism is only a drop in the ocean of Friedkin's artistic mistakes. The film is wholly sour. It grumbles about everything. It doesn't like Abroad (scenes in the Yemeni streets recall the spooky opening moments of Freidkin's The Exorcist). It doesn't like Home (blank military compounds, grown men living in what look like Wendy houses). It doesn't like rules ("Innocent people always get hurt!"). It doesn't like breaking the rules ("I did not exceed my orders!"). It doesn't like modern warfare ("No front line, no enemies..."). It doesn't like old wars (Jones weeps in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC). It doesn't even like America very much (spitting reporters mussing up Jackson's uniform imply distasteful things about the Land of the Free).

Since 1945, America, like no other developed nation, has required enemies, a paranoia whose neurotic nadir was reached with the demonisation of Colombia - America must matter, must stand for something, must have attention paid. It's possible to see Rules of Engagement as nostalgia for all that vanishing significance.

The Wedding Tackle is precisely the kind of small, witless, British offering that US indie directors must sit, guffawing, in front of. It stars James Purefoy, Tony Slattery and Adrian Dunbar (why, Adrian, why?) as a group of friends on a dismal stag night/pub crawl swapping lies and partners. I think the film is set in London, but can't say for sure since it has no sense of location (we're taken on a couple of rides in a character's 2CV, but see no conclusive landmarks).This gives the film an incongruous rootlessnes, a dopey-shaggy-dog-story blur. I'm not sure, either, what message the film is muttering. Stay clear of love and its entanglements, I suppose. Everybody in the film seems to hate each other, especially the lovers, even the new ones - the final scene has Dunbar taking his latest squeeze home and grumpily turning out the lights before the credits roll.

That's not to say we are spared sex. There are a number of gruesome encounters in toilets, Rami Dvir's camera lingering on dry-mouthed kisses and grunts. It's at moments like these that you can't help but think of the cast going home, red-cheeked, groaning about their agents. I only hope the beer in their glasses was real.

It's been a long time since we've been treated to a good pet movie (1996 and the gorgeous Fly Away Home, which was all about a flock of orphaned Canada Geese), and Jay Russell's My Dog Skip is a welcome addition to the genre. Set in Mississippi during the Second World War, it stars a Jack Russell terrier as the best friend of a spindly, bullied boy called Willie (Frankie Muniz). Mum (Diane Lane) and Dad (a Spanish Civil War veteran played by Kevin Bacon) turn a blind eye whenever Skip gets into the bin or drinks out of the loo, and watch lovingly from the porch as Willie goes from strength to strength care of his new pal. It's sentimental old hooch of course (we could have done without the cloying voice-over); but sentimentality is no bar to quality (think E.T.), and all of us fell for it - tears were being shed around me 10 minutes into the screening. Kevin Bacon with a limp (sob). Skip, stiff with arthritis (distinguished colleague from Sight and Sound bawls). Old cine-reel of puppies being trained as fighting machines by the Allies (sweet-wrapper found in pocket doubles as hankie.) You get the picture.