Not with a bang but a simper

FILM: Woody Allen sceptics may be surprised to find their faces cracking for the first time since 'Love and Death'

ABOUT four years ago, before it was a film by Harold Becker, starring Al Pacino and John Cusack, City Hall (15) was a script by Paul Schrader and Nicholas Pileggi entitled Manhattanville. A good deal of Manhattanville's plot has survived on to the screen - it still begins with a drugs shoot- out in which a black child is killed, still follows the tangles of corruption which that shooting accidentally lays bare - and yet so much of the tone has been changed, largely by Bo Goldman's final rewrite, that the end product seems to be tearing itself apart before your eyes.

Among the key alterations: good egg Mayor John Pappas (Pacino), originally an older Hispanic character, now has a warm paternal relationship with his idealistic deputy Kevin Calhoun (Cusack), also much older in the first draft; Calhoun is given a voice-over which begins and ends the film - and ends it, to boot, on a feelgood note; and one of the dodgier characters, Anselmo (the ever-reliable Danny Aiello), has been given a Rodgers and Hammerstein craze. None of which would necessarily have been a bad idea in another movie, but all of which serves to put a gloss of cuteness over what began as a Hobbesian vision of a city crumbling into misrule. Dark political thrillers shouldn't keep pausing to simper winningly.

In one of the biggest and most telling of Goldman's additions, the mayor ventures on to the hostile turf of East Harlem to deliver a funeral oration over the child victim's coffin. This scene is presented without the faintest shred of irony, and as Pacino plunges ever deeper into its uncertain syntax and dubious sense - it's purest humbug - he gradually whips himself up into a hot-gospelling rhythm that ought to arouse the congregation's angry suspicion that he is engaging in racial parody. In real life, they would thrash the man for his vile opportunism, but instead they lap it up, exactly as we are meant to, and the film never recovers its conviction. When it cuts the demagoguery and settles for being a straight investigative caper, City Hall can be quite gripping, sometimes distinguished; but there has to be something gravely amiss with a movie that manages not to let Bridget Fonda shine.

"You're such a Cassandra" is the overeducated gripe with which one character is greeted in Mighty Aphrodite (15). Not such an unusual complaint in Woody Allen's glib milieux, but the come-back is somewhat less typical: "I am Cassandra." And so she is, for the film's principal gimmick is to interweave a contemporary marital comedy with all the trappings of Greek tragedy Woody can remember from Classical Lit 101: gods, heroes, prophets and a chorus which begins with the sonorous translatorese cry "Woe to man!" but is soon spieling and kvetching away like all the agents in Broadway Danny Rose lined up in rank and file: "Please, Lenny, don't be a schmuck!", "Certain thoughts are better left unthunk" and so on. When they call on Zeus for aid, they get his answering machine.

Woody, in brief, has blended two of his old standbys, the sex farce of his less earnest films and the cod-literate incongruities of his early books. Long-term Allen fans will be in hog heaven; long-term Allen sceptics will continue to wax grumpy about the hollow, self-plagiarising narcissism of his oeuvre. But the latter group may also be surprised to find their faces cracking for the first time since, say, Love and Death, partly because the jokes, if stale, are piled up thick, partly because Allen has finally had the confidence of his own vulgarity and come up with one of the juiciest dumb-blonde roles in an age: Linda Ash, aka Judy Cum (Mira Sorvino, who took an Oscar for the role), a pneumatic, helium-voiced hooker with a heart of gold, a brain of oatmeal and an apartment full of copulating cartoon animals.

The plot is Oedipus through the looking glass. Lenny, a proud but dangerously inquisitive father (Woody), uncomfortably married to a beautiful young art dealer (Helena Bonham Carter), starts to wonder who the real parents of his adopted son might have been, and sets off in a clumsy quest, to discover that the mother was Linda, who coolly assures him that she comes from a long line of "slugs and lowlifes". Compounding his hubris, Lenny - plainly turned on by her cheerful carnality - tries to tidy up her life, an enterprise which drags him into assorted tangles with a murderous pimp and a boxer even less nimble-witted than Linda. Undemanding as the ensuing comedy may be, it's also much less suffocating than a lot of Allen's previous excursions - a welcome gift to those who think he cuts a better figure as Yorick than as Hamlet.

John Woo, the Hong Kong shoot-'em-up director turned Hollywood shoot- 'em-up director, used to be noted for insisting on individual bangs for each of his characters' guns. If he made the same demands on his sound team on Broken Arrow (15), the poor overworked souls would be in sanatoria by now, since watching the film with unprotected ears compares unfavourably with an afternoon on an artillery range. It's a sickening barrage of booms, bangs, thuds, crashes, splats and pings, starting with the impact of boxing glove on flesh - John Travolta punching the tar out of his sidekick Christian Slater - and building up to a thermonuclear explosion (the most enjoyable sight in the movie).

The excuse for all this racket is a premise straight out of Connery-vintage Bond, as reworked by the author of Speed, Graham Yost. Travolta, an embittered Stealth plane pilot (you can tell he's a bad 'un from the outset by his fey manner of chainsmoking), hijacks a couple of bombs and blackmails Washington, but has not reckoned on the true grit of young Slater and the plucky gel park ranger (Samantha Mathis) he meets after being involuntarily ejected. The assembled company messes around in the picturesque desert of Utah (Montana acted as scenery double) for a couple of hours, destroying more helicopters than you might have thought feasible, while Travolta grins broadly and stares meanly just like potty villains are supposed to. It went down a treat at the American box office, where Broken Arrow broke records, and is undeniably fun in parts. It palls, though: Woo's demented sense of chivalric conflict doesn't adapt well to Yost's high- velocity vehicle, and where Speed maintained a delirious high, Broken Arrow soon induces motion sickness.

Nelly and Mr Arnaud (PG), the English title given to Claude Sautet's new film lest Nelly et M Arnaud frighten off the natives, might have been made on a different planet from that inhabited by John Woo: its pre-credit sequence consists of an elderly man sitting quietly in a restaurant and then leaving. Talk about cheap attention-grabbing devices! The film maintains this frenetic pace, yet, implausible as this may sound, is completely engrossing. Emmanuelle Beart (star of Sautet's Un Coeur en Hiver) takes the role of Nelly, a patchily employed young woman who decides to ditch her feckless spouse when a virtual stranger, M Arnaud (the marvellous Michel Serrault), offers her enough money to clear her debts. Thus liberated, she drifts into part-time employment as the typist of Arnaud's book about his life as a colonial judge and into a non-committal affair with Arnaud's publisher (Jean-Hugues Anglade). It's easy to see that a May-to-December romance is going to hatch from the dictation sessions; harder to guess the course of Sautet's astringent tale, which respects the mysteries of both characters and balances every note of pathos with unforced wit.

Michael Tolkin's grossly under-rewarded first film as director, The Rapture, was an appalled rationalist's satire not simply on the Born Again crowd but, by its final reels, on God Himself. Despite its title, however, his second film, The New Age (18), is only incidentally a spoof on the West Coast's culture of credulousness: it's more preoccupied with the emotional vacuity of a rich couple - Judy Davis and Peter Weller, last paired in The Naked Lunch - whose fortunes go into a dive when the marginally useful industries in which they work (advertising, graphics) decide they are superfluous to needs. Tolkin, who wrote The Player, proceeds to put these two through it with Old Testament ferocity as they flail around taking lovers, opening a swank clothes store and dipping their toes into various freaky sub-cultures, and the spectacle isn't always easy to watch. But Judy Davis, who with dark ringlets and defiantly un-American pallor looks like she has stepped out of a French Symbolist's wet dream, is as terrific as ever, and almost every sequence bears the mark of Tolkin's restless, unconventional intelligence.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14

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