It won't cut the mustard in the Premier League

OTHER RELEASES; i.d. (18) Philip Davis / UK The Steal (PG) John Hay / UK Milk Money (12) Richard Benjamin/ US
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Two new British films by first-time directors (both casting a critical eye on the state of the nation) should be a cause for celebration, although neither quite warrants a party. In i.d., by some way the better movie, four young policemen go undercover to infiltrate a gang of hooligans on the margins of an East End football club and smoke out the ringleaders. They soon go to seed big-time; John (Reece Dinsdale), in particular, develops a taste for violence, immersing himself in this new world so deeply that he might never come up for air.

It's a variation on films like Cruising, in which Al Pacino's cop entered the gay community, or Rush, which dealt with drugs. Recent events have lent i.d. (which is set in the late Eighties) a renewed and baleful topicality. But it aims to be not primarily about football, but about the forces which make beasts of men.

The director, Phil Davis, is also an actor, with strong links to Mike Leigh, and i.d. displays something of Leigh's skill in working with actors (Dinsdale seethes with raw, angry energy), while Thomas Mauch, the German cameraman who shot many of Werner Herzog's films lends the rough subject matter a professional sheen.

What lets it down - like so many British movies - is the script. There are nice details and touches of humour, but, as a narrative, it's a non- starter. The boys are left entirely to their own devices - they're not even based at the police station. I'm told by the film-makers that this is true to life; maybe, but it also makes for a dramatically slack film. There's no sense of urgency, of pressure from their superiors to get results, or of their gradual discoveries (they come away with little by the end). The story collapses into ever-escalating riots.

The character insights are slim too. The film doesn't illuminate the social and psychological factors which turn some men, and not others, bad: either the thugs themselves, who seem to have no lives beyond the pitch and the pub (where do they live? what jobs do they do?) or, more damagingly, the policemen: John is transformed overnight. In the film's crudest sequence, shots of rough sex with the local barmaid (Saskia Reeves, horribly convincing) are cross-cut with his exploits on the terraces. Violence is orgasmic - part, in some woolly way, of the male unconscious (note the word play in the film's title); end of analysis. i.d. is not a film without interest or promise: the boys done good. But they could've done much better.

The Steal, a heist comedy, is written and directed with an unfailing flair for rank implausibilities, mistimed comic business and tin dialogue. Alfred Molina, a fine actor who seems entirely at sea, is an old lefty with a mural in his kitchen illustrating the revolutionary slogan "under the pavement is the beach". His accomplice is a computer hacker, played by Helen Slater, a very minor American star encouraged to overact embarrassingly with a range of phoney accents. Together, egged on by Heathcote Williams' radical lawyer, they conspire to defraud rapacious capitalism in the shape of a private bank with dodgy investments in the Third World.

The Steal wants to be a modern-day Ealing comedy, an oxymoronic project which has been the undoing of many a movie before this one: the Ealings were and are still wonderful but they were made in a Britain which hasn't existed for half a century. Here, the jolly coppers and Bumble-like security guards and fruity old buffers from the lunatic fringe of the English aristocracy (Peter Bowles and a film-stealing Dinsdale Landen) all sit uneasily in a would-be sophisticated urban thriller. The political correctness sits uneasily too: classic Ealings like Passport to Pimlico and The Man in the White Suit were rooted in an anarchic individualism and had the good sense not to preach.

Britain doesn't have a monopoly on folksy national stereotypes: Milk Money is set in that mythic American suburbia where people leave their keys in the ignition and their houses unlocked (note how in this sort of movie the visual point of reference is always Norman Rockwell; films with artier pretensions, by contrast, look to Edward Hopper). Three horny 12-year-old schoolboys pool their milk money to buy a glimpse of a naked woman. They happen upon Melanie Griffith's soft-hearted hooker and one of them knows she'd be just right for his widowed dad (Ed Harris).

This is a non-dairy creamer comedy, bland, synthetic and probably bad for your health. It asks those age-old questions: what is a woman? what does she want? (in one bizarre and faintly offensive scene, Griffith acts as a human model for the boys' show-and-tell biology class), and comes up with the answer - surprise! - a small-town mom and housewife. A tiny diversion: Malcolm McDowell's daft cockney crook.

n On release from tomorrow

Sheila Johnston