It's `bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad'

A film about the culture of violence? Oliver Stone could have said: `Gee folks, I guess I'm part of the problem.' Did he? Did he hell. Adam Mars-Jones on Natural Born Killers
It gleams in front of Oliver Stone like the Grail: an area of artistic activity where exaggeration and distortion - just what he does best - are not dismissed or deprecated but positively required. Now if he could just get into that racket, there would be no holding him. The racket here is the satire racket, and Natural Born Killers is what he imagines a satire to be.

Satire is bound to exercise a fatal attraction over some people, since it is the only version of comedy in which an actual sense of humour is optional. Indignation and willingness to exaggerate are enough for the job. Technically, the indignation should be righteous, based on a moral perspective of some sort, but let that pass. Let's not be too picky.

Oliver Stone has achieved many extraordinary things in the course of his career. He has shown that you can be anti-war and still be belligerent, that you can be a liberal and still foam at the mouth, that you can be a dove and still want to shoot the hawks clean out of the sky. But Natural Born Killers takes him way beyond that.

When someone starts pounding the table and bellowing that women get a raw deal in our society, that racial minorities are shamefully under-represented in public life, that homophobia is one thing that really makes him mad, you're going to be thinking: someone's going to get beaten up... and it could be anybody.

But the supposed target of Natural Born Killers is the American glamorisation of violence. Images from films and television are non-naturalistically projected on to walls on the sides of buildings throughout the action. We are saturated with images of violence, you see. We can't escape them.

One of the films quoted is Midnight Express, in which an American in a Turkish prison bites off the tongue of one of his tormentors - an entirely imaginary incident added to the real-life story by the screenwriter, Oliver Stone. So, is Natural Born Killers a big lunk's clumsy apology, his gruff way of saying, "Gee, folks, I'm sorry, I guess I'm part of the problem"? Not a bit of it. Oliver Stone sees himself as part of the solution.

Quentin Tarantino is credited for the story but did not write the screenplay (by Stone, with David Veloz and Richard Rutowski). Still, there's a moment where Micky and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) play a children's counting game - Eeny Meeny Miny Mo - to decide which of two people to shoot (the camera representing the gun, swinging slowly from side to side), which may remind discriminating film-goers of the moment in Pulp Fiction where the gay sadists play a children's counting game - Eeny Meeny Miny Mo - to decide which of two people to rape, while the camera swings slowly from side to side. If that's your idea of an auteur thumb print, be happy.

When Tommy Lee Jones, in an apoplectic performance as the prison warder in Natural Born Killers, keeps saying that he doesn't like it when things get quiet, he could be speaking for his director. Stone bombards the viewer with dismal television parodies and hyperactive camera work. He borrows the nifty subjective shots of flying arrows from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and adapts them nastily for bullets and knives. There's hardly a scene that doesn't alternate between colour and black-and-white: it's like watching two hours of that Volvo advert with the photographer who gets through tiny keyholes to document falling crates, while someone drops offal chunks into your popcorn.

Oliver Stone would have a lot more chance of proving the proposition that violence is only exciting at second-hand if he himself were able to show a prison riot without adding a pounding rock soundtrack. What makes him think he's a critic of an over-stimulated society when synthetic adrenalin is his stock-in-trade?

Natural Born Killers sets out to satirise the cult and culture of violence, but it ends up exemplifying a different modern problem - Attention Deficit Disorder. We're not supposed to notice that most of the couple's victims are ugly, fat, or rednecks, or all three, grotesques we are hardly likely to mourn. Or that Mallory turns from abused child to kick-boxing expert the moment she becomes an outlaw (if Oliver Stone thinks nihilism is a martial art, he needs a therapist or a dictionary). Or that the deserted mega-pharmacy in one sequence, with its signs saying YOUR DRUGGIST IS YOUR FRIEND and TAKE YOUR MEDICINE, has wandered in from a different movie, a Stepford Wives-style satire on the culture of passivity and submission to authority.

Mickey and Mallory are at the same time victims of abuse (his father was violent; hers treated her as his sexual property) and also - a note much more fully sounded, from the title on down - intrinsically bad. But then nobody's any good. Robert Downey Jnr mysteriously affects an Antipodean accent to play a shameless presenter of true-crime TV programmes. The detective in charge of the case (Tom Sizemore) is sexually obsessed by Mallory, and himself commits a murder. In what must be the crassest sequence of a crass film, he reacts to a crime scene as if it were a pornographic tableau, seeing Mallory's face reflected in a car's coachwork, sniffing her discarded knickers, and prising a strand of her pubic hair from between a dead teenager's teeth with an emotion that is apparently envy.

The only values that are treated with any respect in the film are those of Native Americans. The murderous couple are taken in and briefly looked after by, essentially, a Noble Savage, who diagnoses them as being possessed by demons and bad television, and tries with his tribal rituals to exorcise their various incubuses. It doesn't work, of course, but this is one murder that they actually regret. It's bad. In fact, in Mallory's words, it's "bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad". Do you pick up the subtle hint that her moral vocabulary is rather impoverished?

If Oliver Stone is imaginatively engaged by the lives of Native Americans, he should certainly make a film about that. What he should not do is borrow their supposed mysticism, separated from their history and modern living conditions, and use it to jazz up his wretched world view, as he does not only here but in The Doors. It's bad enough having your people massacred and your ancestral lands confiscated, without having some film director wear your belief systems round his dumb neck like so much funky ethnic jewellery.

n `Natural Born Killers' opens tomorrow