Oh! what a lovely war

CRIMSON TIDE; Tony Scott (15): FRENCH KISS; Lawrence Kasdan (12); JADE: William Friedkin (18)
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The Independent Culture
Tony Scott makes the prettiest action movies I know. In Crimson Tide a military conference takes place against the shimmer of rain streaming down the windows; a council of war is backlit in glowing primary colours; as strategy is pondered you notice how the gold braid trim on the officers' uniforms gleams softly in the evening light.

Set mainly in a nuclear submarine, the film is all huge close-ups and tilted camera angles; it's an exercise in making dynamic use of a confined space (the press notes helpfully contain a surreal scale diagram juxtaposing a London bus with a sub: the ratio is about 15:1). I wondered how Scott would work his trademark dove into an underwater war movie, but it's there, in a brief children's party scene.

Crimson Tide doesn't just look good: it's sharp, intelligent (much more so than the cliched basic premise sounds) and terrifically acted. A maverick, Zhirinovsky-like Russian nationalist has seized control of a nuclear missile base and global holocaust is in the air; an American submarine is dispatched to Russian waters. At the helm is Gene Hackman, a grizzled, combat-scarred veteran with an itchy trigger finger. Denzel Washington (the movie's second dove) is his executive officer, a brilliant military academy graduate with no experience in the field. When an ambiguous order arrives to launch their "birds", as the missiles are apparently known (hawks, presumably), the two struggle for control of the vessel over a passionate ethical debate about obedience to authority.

This couple is a splendid contrast, Hackman with his battered boxer's face, Washington with his smooth, rather bland good looks - but it's definitely Hackman's movie. Quentin Tarantino, who was hired to give the script an expensive last-minute spit and polish, has tossed him most of the quirky character traits, a weakness for fat cigars and a small, snappish Jack Russell terrier.

Tarantino's imprint can also be detected on scenes like the one in which the sailors quiz each other on submarine-movie trivia. For once, his pop- culture references aren't just in-jokes, but serve a narrative function. Hackman likes to relax alone in his quarters listening to classical music; he's a loner, old-fashioned, out of touch with his men and the modern world. Washington chats to his crew about Star Trek, and this knowledge is what motivates them - the individuals he talks to are those who later help save the day.

Washington is probably alone among black American actors in being able to play racially "neutral" leading roles - characters whose colour seems irrelevant to the story. His down-at-heel attorney in Philadelphia was originally written white; in Crimson Tide there is only one explicit reference to his black-ness, late in the story (although memories of racial violence are invoked by the submarine's name, the USS Alabama).

But it is a telling reference: Hackman, recalling Washington's love of riding, taunts him with the information that the Lipizzaner stallions, the finest horses in the world, can be trained to unquestioning submission. And they are always white. Washington caps that with the riposte that the foals are born black. It's an elegant, witty metaphor, which also suggests that, being from a minority, Washington automatically has a different, more questioning take on life. Gripping stuff.

Romantic comedies these days are a tough call commercially (Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, no less, went straight to video recently in their remake of Love Affair), but enough still succeed for the genre to keep the flame. When Harry Met Sally was one, and its two principals, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, each went on to produce and star in other romantic comedies. Each has the same problem.

The poster for Ryan's French Kiss speaks volumes about acting styles: she leans forward towards the camera, grinning slightly manically, while Kevin Kline (interviewed on page 8), leans back watching her with a quizzical eye. Like Crystal in Forget Paris, Ryan turns her film into an indulgent vehicle for her own mugging. Meanwhile, Kline (like Debra Winger, in Crystal's movie) gives a perfectly pitched comic turn which displays the merits of playing it cool.

In French Kiss, Ryan flies to Paris in pursuit of her errant fiance, but finds herself involuntarily drawn to a French conman (Kline). No prizes for guessing the outcome, or the stereotypes in play (the Americans are uptight; the French devil-may-care, Canadians come off worst: they're plum boring). But there are some engaging moments and a handful of droll performances in the minor roles.

Bringing up the rear, Jade is written by another highly-paid scribe, Joe Eszterhas, who, incredibly, commands zillions of dollars for always recycling the same story. Jagged Edge was about a hunky murder suspect who might or might not be a killer. Betrayed was about a hunky farmer who might or might not be a killer. Music Box was about a nice old man who might or might not be a war criminal. In Basic Instinct, a sexy authoress might be a murderess, but you never know till the closing seconds. Jade stars Linda Fiorentino as a sexy authoress who... well, you get the idea. The weapon is even the same: an axe.

Listless and formulaic, the film sells itself on sex (note the cunnilingual poster design), but even Fiorentino, so explosive in The Last Seduction, and the possessor of the most sensual voice in all the movies, comes off badly. David Caruso and Chazz Palminteri aid and abet.

n All films open tomorrow