Guns and poses

Bad Boys Michael Bay (18) Rice People Rithy Panh (PG) In the Mouth of Madness John Carpenter (18) Silent Fall Bruce Beresford (15) Fun Rafal Zielinski (18)
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The Independent Culture
Why do we go to the movies? Is it to relive, once again, those old familiar scenes, to listen to lines we know so well we could almost mouth them along with the characters? Or is it to see people and stories we hadn't come across before? Examples of both kinds of film open this week, and it's a closed book about which one will wipe the floor at the box-office.

In the Eighties, the producing stable of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer turned out a series of juggernauts like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop and Days of Thunder. This week, after lying dormant for quite a while, they're back with Bad Boys, a wholly unambitious reworking of a stock formula: two cops - one, Will Smith, a wild bachelor, one, Martin Lawrence, a settled, slightly goofy family man - trail and nail some street scum.

Both actors are highly likeable presences, but they scarcely have the star power or comic skills of established action players like Mel Gibson or Eddie Murphy; the director, too, a first-timer graduating from ads and music videos (it shows) must have come cheap. Most of the budget has been blown on stunts and special effects. There is a flash, fast car, which someone compares to a dick on wheels; exploding whatnots; a leap from a high building into a swimming-pool (a blatant steal from Richard Donner, the director of the Lethal Weapon franchise, who has made this his trademark); and you may rest assured that whenever a glass object hoves into view, it will be shattered in slo-mo by the end of the scene. Ah, the joys of trash.

At the opposite end of the known universe, Rice People, another first feature, has an exotic rarity appeal. Set in Cambodia, it describes one year's cycle in the lives of a family of rice farmers, from the "waking of the paddy fields" to the final harvest. It begins, with slow, careful observation of their work, then ripens into full melodrama as tragedy strikes and the mother goes spectacularly mad. It's a good-looking, deliberately timeless film (the Khmer Rouge appears only in an ambiguous flashback / dream), but one that's hard to enthuse about: so much noble suffering. But it's occasionally fascinating, all the same, as a window on a very different world.

Elsewhere, too, madness, child abuse, dysfunction and murder remain the order of the week. The jolliest of this batch by far is John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, wherein a cynical insurance-fraud investigator (Sam Neill in fine lugubrious comic fettle) is hired to track down Sutter Cane, a Stephen King-style horror novelist who has gone AWOL. Neill suspects a publicity stunt, but the trail leads him to a sleepy New England town where he finds the writer hard at work converting his fictional nightmares into a reality that will take over the world.

Carpenter hasn't lost his touches of wit (the very end of the closing credits contains a gag worth waiting for) but, like the Elm Street movies, with which the scriptwriter was once involved, this is one of those self- referential horror movies that gets buried alive in an avalanche of clever special effects and an incredible imploding plot. The low-budget early work with which the director made his name was a model of clarity in both departments; he, like so many others working in the horror genre, seems to have lost sight of what a simple matter fear can be.

In Silent Fall, the only eye-witness to the killing of his own parents is an autistic boy; Richard Dreyfuss is the psychologist coaxed from retirement to draw him out. The film has some unusual ideas: the device, for instance, of having the boy being able to speak, but only in other people's tongues: he mimics the murder scene looping in his head, but Dreyfuss must establish who originally spoke the lines. As a thriller, it's a dead loss, mainly due to a dearth of suspects - this film must have had the lowest extras budget of last year. As for performances, "Abused victims are the best actors," Dreyfuss says at one point. All involved in this film - bar Ben Faulkner, who is haunting as the boy - must have enjoyed idyllic childhoods.

In Fun, two very young teenage girls do in a nice little old lady, for kicks. Afterwards, they express no remorse. "Fun is Number One," one of them declares. "The only thing I believe in." The film flips between colour flashbacks to the crime, and scenes in the detention centre, shot in black- and-white and pseudo-verite style, where they are interrogated about their motives. It started life as a play; the film version premiered at Sundance in February of last year. Its long passage on to British screens lends it a sense of deja vu: we've heard too much of the blank generation recently, and this doesn't have much new to say. The main reason to see it is the exceptional performances from the two young leads, Alicia Witt as the crazed, hyperactive, almost infantile Bonnie and Renee Humphrey as her brooding, introverted friend. Both are names to watch.

SHEILA JOHNSTON

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