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Movie explosions can be more than stunts. As `The Specialist'

proves, a blast can be the star. Quentin Curtis picks his Top 10

THE ONLY blast in my past was a minor one. I was a few hundred yards away when an IRA bomb went off at a police station in Earls Court Road, London, in the early Seventies. There were no casualties, little damage, and I was safely indoors at the time, playing a board game. Yet I still remember its impact. Not just the cliche'd images: the low, powerful rumble and the clattering windows. But more unnerving, the reverberating fear, which stemmed from ignorance as much as anything else, and the malice which hung in the air like a whiff of cordite.

No movie explosion I know of quite captures those emotions. Mainly explosions in the movies are elaborate fireworks, a branch of special effects. I am not complaining. Who could do anything but sit and wonder - or stand and cheer - when Sylvester Stallone blows a whole suite off a hotel in The Specialist, with such precision that it hangs loose of the building by a thread, before dropping into the pool? Blasts can be beautiful. But just occasionally they can be a little more than grandiose stunts. Theycan shatter a life as well as a limb. And they can tie in so intricately with a film's structure that its every frame can seem to be a piece of shrapnel. That is what unites my Top 10, below. They are about picking up the pieces as much as lighting the fuse.

0The Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944). It is appropriate that we start with Lang, as it was he who invented the countdown (in his prescient 1929 space pic, The Woman in the Moon). And no other director has so well understood the emotional impact of explosions or the claustrophobia of film - the way a good blast may be like a clearing out of the system. Lang's films largely take place indoors, where the heat of human affairs rises to fever pitch, while outside it is forever night. Even when there is no gelignite in view, you feel things may well explode or boil over. This is an even pokier, pitchier piece of work than the Graham Greene novel on which it is based. Greene found a strange grace in the Blitz, in the flares which came "sailing, beautifully, down, like clusters of spangles off a Christmas tree". Lang's world is harsher. In this explosion, though, he keeps faith with the original.

The hero picks up a leather case from a bookseller (in England, we will see, bombers are often quaint or eccentric). He delivers it to a flat that turns out to be empty. When he opens the case, horror spreads across his face, along with a strange beam oflight. He throws himself across the room, knocking his lady companion to the floor. The blast is brisk and effective, particularly the pall of white smoke that slowly clouds the screen. Greene hated the film, but surely he admired this scene. All he wrote in the novel was: "Then, as the sirens took up their nightly wail, he opened the lid of the suitcase . . ."

9 Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936). For first principles turn to Hitch. He told Francois Truffaut: "In the classical situation of a bombing, you fear for someone's safety. And that fear depends on the intensity of the public's identification with the person who is in danger." Here he gives an almost self-parodic demonstration of how to put an audience through the suspense wringer. In this loose adaptation of Conrad's The Secret Agent, Verloc, the spy, has picked up a bomb to be planted in Piccadilly at1.45pm - from a man who sells canaries (another oddball). Unable to plant it himself, he sends his wife's unwitting younger brother, a boy of about 11. Agonisingly, the child is delayed (most memorably by a street pharmacist). As the clock nears 1.45 (constant cuts to the hands getting ever-nearer), the boy is in a bus stuck in traffic on its way to the Lord Mayor's Show. A woman fondles her lap-dog beside him (a typical Hitch touch). The editing speeds to a frenzy, before a sha rp, curtailed explosion- the parcel going up and the bus collapsing. Hitchcock quickly cuts to Verloc: "Well, now, everything seems to be all right. Will you have your drink, Dr Role?"

8 The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953). Even Hitchcock never created so pure a suspense vehicle as this. Vehicle is the operative word: four men have to drive two truckloads of nitro-glycerine 300 miles across South America to put out an oil-well fire. It makes Speed look like a Sunday stroll. Surprisingly, the explosion, when it happens, is intentional - to remove some rubble. But its impact is devastating. Clouzot uses one of the longest fuses in film history and pays rare attention to the soundtrack (usually an all-purpose boom), almost drowning the bang with a crescendo of crickets. The film is also fascinating for its exploration of the threat of explosion. As Pauline Kael wrote: "When you can be blown up at any moment only a fool believes that character determines fate." Surprisingly, there is no closing conflagration. In that respect, this is the dog that didn't bark in the night.

7 Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955). Just occasionally a terrifying blast can be screamingly funny. Here we have the explosion as pastiche. Everything about Aldrich's relentlessly cynical thriller fiercely mocks the conventions of film noir. The characters are stock: a hard-bitten private eye; a crooked boxing trainer; a down-at-heel actress; a neurotic opera singer rehearsing in his garret. The air in this world is almost too noxious to breathe, but on screen it comes over as laughing gas. (Pulp Fi ction borrowed a canister.) They are all after another leather case (its hiss and flare, when opened, resemble The Ministry of Fear). The climax is in a beach hut. In typically baroque style, a man beseeches a girl: "Listen to me, as if I were Cerberusb arking with all his hounds at the gates of hell . . . DON'T OPEN THE BOX!!" Of course, she does - releasing a roaring inferno, billowing smoke, and wave after wave of explosions, which continue over the closing titles.

6 The Fury (Brian De Palma, 1978). This is the exception to the rule. But what an exception. It's not just that the blast doesn't tie in so well with the film's scheme. It is not a bomb exploding at all - but a man. He is played by John Cassavetes, who, in the last scene, is in the bedroom of Amy Irving, a girl with telekinetic powers, whom he has been malignly controlling. Now the tables are turned. She begins to mesmerise him by the power of her eyes, steering him around the room like a puppeteer withher marionette. Blood pours from his eyes and ears. As the intensity rises, she holds her palms open, as if in prayer. Cassavetes - in an extraordinary piece of acting - vibrates. De Palma cuts to Irving's blue eyes. There is a flash of white. And then the body bursts apart at the seams, in a brownish-red shower of liquid, a cloudburst of blood and excrement. De Palma replays the explosion from many different angles, parodying Antonioni (see below). A gut-busting finale.

5 The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957). Eyebrows may rise at the omission of Lean's train explosion in Lawrence of Arabia. That was a brilliant stunt. But this is the better bang. It is not just the masterly tension: the eerie calm; the stanchion holding the fuse-wire peeping out of the low water; Alec Guinness's chipper walk, inspecting the bridge his POWs have erected; and his hesitation, as he realises something is wrong. What is so extraordinary about this explosion is the way it confuses our emotions. The groundwork is done through character. Lean presents us with two different philosophies of war: the brutal pragmatism of the American William Holden and the ex-Cambridge professor, Jack Hawkins; and the misplaced romanticism of Alec Guinness. Guinness's desire for his men to build something out of their humiliation is moving but misplaced. When he realises his error, his fall onto the box detonating the explosion is supremely ambivalent - even Guinness said he didn't know wheth er it was deliberate or accidental. Lean shoots the explosion superbly, with the train careering into the water like a Hornby locomotive and the bridge reduced to rubble. But we don't know whether to cheer or weep.

4 Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970). One of the most beautiful sequences ever filmed. Antonioni's study of the US counter-culture was vilified by critics when it came out. But it stands up as a lyrical essay on revolution. "What was any revolutionary without other people?" someone asks early on. The film's explosive final sequence shows how revolution can be a solitary struggle - a pursuit of the mind. The heroine imagines her real-estate agent boss's villa being blasted apart. Antonioni gives us the blast first as drama - its terrifying suddenness - then as a kind of aesthetic rapture. Slow-motion cameras repeat the explosion from every angle. The grey stones cascade out of the pillars which the villa rests on. A fridge catapults through the air, with a somersaulting uncooked chicken in its train. A garden table floats on its side, a surreal sculpture. The television screen shatters into a shower of crystals, the amplifier spinning like a top. Books flap their white pages in bird-like flight. Antonioni finally cuts away to the girl driving, smiling serenely - an insurrectionist of the imagination, the single still point in Antonioni's artfully destabilised world.

3 The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953). The best Lang bang. Here he shows how the horror of a blast can cauterise a man, and demonstrates violence's terrible ramifications in society. The film explores the concept of order. Glenn Ford plays a cop investigating some gangsters. His marriage is not so much happy as blissful. We see him and his wife sharing a cigarette (the height of domestic eroticism in Fifties Hollywood). She is understanding, supportive: "Just keep leading with your chin and don't you compromise." He bridles at "doing what I'm told", whether it's the mob or his craven superiors doing the bidding - or the Dr Spock-style babycare book he is reading to his wife. The child is a beautiful, innocent decoy. As he tells her the story about the three pigs, his wife drives off to fetch the babysitter. We are in the child's bedroom, so we only see a flash of light, and hear the windows rattle. Ford pushes the child down - practicality preceding emotion - and rushes to the car, only to drag his wife'slifeless body from it. Ford's steely pursuit of the criminals follows from this devastation, as does the thugs' pitiless savagery, as if the equilibrium of society had been hideously overturned. The blast is subdued, but its impact is shattering.

2 In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993). This explosion made me physically flinch when I first saw it in the cinema, and it does the same now on video. The whole scene lasts just 35 seconds, and yet contains so much. Sheridan gives us a glimpse of the lives obliterated. By a dim orange light, two couples make their way to a pub. Their conversation is drowned by the anthemic chant of Bono on the soundtrack, but they are in high spirits, joshing, quarrelling even - one girl, dressed up to the nines, thumps her fellow with her handbag. By the time we see them enter the pub, they are all grinning. A lad in a wide-collared white shirt raises his hand to hail a friend. It is like a starting signal for the catastrophe. There is a white m agnesium flash and a cut to outside as the walls are blown out and the windows smashed into a spray of glass. Sheridan's shooting of the aftermath is discreetly evocative - just a close-up of a handbag flying on to the road. The screen blackens, before a title emerges: "Guildford, England Oct 5, 1974". The scene is shocking but not exploitative. It gives a microcosm of the victims' lives, but also an inkling of the terrorists' appalling indifference, since it is matched by the camera's detachment. The s hame was that a film that began with such a bang should end with Emma Thompson whimpering in court.

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). This explosion reverberates not only in the rest of the trilogy, but throughout American history. The first line of The Godfather is: "I believe in America." It is spoken by a father who seeks vengeance from the Corleones against the man who slashed his daughter's face in a car. Cars spell danger in The Godfather. When Michael Corleone, having fled to Sicily, teaches his new wife, Apollonia, to drive, we should fear the worst. Michael's courtship of Apollonia, whom we first see guiding a child by the hand, is conducted with typical Corleone peremptoriness. But his Sicilian expedition has a lyrical joy that throws into relief the grimness of the American scenes. Here is hope. Someone tells Michael: "She'llmake a good American wife." He is basking in the glow of the compliment and the fantasised future, when he notices the servant, Fabrizio, scurrying suspiciously away. He sees the car at the end of the drive, realises too late, and lets out a horrible, animalistic wail: "No. No. Apollonia!" The explosion, with dreadful force, engulfs the car. When it clears, a leg hangs out of the driver's door. Michael Corleone was tough before; but this may be where the decency died in him. It is an American tale: of hope betrayed and of the enmity of the old country replayed in the new. One remembers that supplicant at the beginning, talking of his mutilated daughter: "She didn't weep.

But I wept . . . Now she will never be beautiful again." This film, and this explosion, is the story of America's paradise lost.

ce `The Specialist' (15) is on nationwide release.