REVIEWS / Blood complicated

Red Rock West (15) John Dahl (US) The Assassin (18) John Badham (US) The Fencing Master (12) Pedro Olea (Sp)

THIS may sound a trifle familiar. The rangy loner pulls up in a one-horse town and enters the bar. He's got a lazy drawl, a gammy leg and an empty wallet. Within seconds, the bartender has mistaken him for a hit-man, given him dollars 5,000 and told him to kill a woman - to be exact, the bartender's wife. So the loner takes the cash and the gun, goes to confront his victim and is promptly given twice as much to kill the bartender instead. He tries to take the money and run, but just as he passes the city limits his car hits a pedestrian. And then his day starts to get really complicated . . .

The naive loner is Nicolas Cage, the hard-bitten wife is Lara Flynn Boyle and the film is John Dahl's Red Rock West, which must count as the one of the cheekiest forays into James M Cain and Jim Thompson territory since the Coen brother's debut, Blood Simple. Red Rock West isn't as murky or as ethically nagging as the Coen's film - it's more like a shaggy dog story - and it's certainly not as flamboyant in style, but it serves up its stock elements in an engaging mixture of menace and unblushing farce.

In most films, for example, the arrival of Dennis Hopper as a barking mad redneck with black cowboy boots and a sick sense of humour would make canny audiences groan with weariness. But the type-casting in Red Rock West is just another kind of quotation - the part is meant to resonate with all the other psychos Hopper has played.

For about two-thirds of its duration, Dahl's knowing little game speeds along in such fast and funny style that it can be forgiven almost any amount of implausibility. Around the 20th impossible plot revelation, however, he crosses the border between the knowing and the arch, and Red Rock West starts to look more and more like a Red Rock cider ad. Its best performance is its straightest - J T Walsh as Wayne the bartender. His scenes with Cage strike a genuinely ugly note that suggest Dahl might pull off a real chiller if he ever gets bored with B-movie pastiche.

The Assassin ought to sound familiar too, since it's John Badham's remake of Luc Besson's chick-with-an-automatic thriller Nikita. The new movie is over-designed, studiedly violent, incoherent and generally puerile - quite faithful, in short, to the spirit of Besson's original as well as to its plot, which is followed with a dedication that borders on fanaticism. This time around, the drug-crazed cop killer is christened Maggie (Bridget Fonda) and codenamed 'Nina', after her penchant for Nina Simone. Everything else is almost precisely as before.

Once again, after suffering the shortest cold turkey in the annals of addiction, our heroine is offered a choice between a cosy cemetery plot or a career as a exceptionally aggressive civil servant. Once again, she undergoes some eye-catching tuition, here at the hands of Gabriel Byrne (lumbered, perhaps as a nod to 007, with Sean Connery's accent). Once again, she finds that being a career girl puts strains on her home life with her weedy photographer lover (Dermot Mulroney) that not even her motherly tutor in social graces (Anne Bancroft in the role originally taken by Jeanne Moreau) can smooth out.

A modicum of fun squeezes through the formula. The Pygmalion element is more apparent this time (scruffy Maggie has lessons in dressing to kill, and is shown how to remove fish-bones from her mouth without bourgeois recourse to the napkin), so that there are times when The Assassin resembles not Nikita but Pretty Woman. Harvey Keitel turns in a stunning head-butt of a performance as a 'cleaner' and disappears all too soon. And Bridget Fonda makes a surprisingly strong lead - her Maggie is more likeable than Anne Parillaud's Nikita, which makes a big difference in the action scenes; Nikita was such a petulant bore that a spot of extreme prejudice would have come as a relief.

Incidentally, the word 'assassin' is derived from a sect who indulged in massive quantities of hashish. Their modern counterparts would make the ideal audience for this tosh.

Pedro Olea's The Fencing Master begins with a skilful feint. At first it looks like routine, not to say dull art-house matter of repressed passion and textbook symbolism. Astarloa (Omero Antonutti), an ageing maestro of swordsmanship, agrees against his principles to give private lessons to a dashing young lady with terrific bone structure (Assumpta Serna). Inevitably, he finds her looks more piercing than her foil.

Meanwhile - for we are in Madrid in 1868 - the streets outside are filled with political turmoil to match Astarloa's emotional churnings: the queen is burnt in effigy and republicans are calling for General Prim to return from exile and take over the country. So far, so-so; but then things suddenly brighten up tremendously as the plot takes a bound into murder mystery, festooned with stolen letters, disappearances, beatings and tortures, plus a terminal duel to make Baroness Orczy spin with envy and a female assassin to make Nikita look gauche. All of which helps make The Fencing Master unexpectedly engrossing; it is Antonutti's melancholic portrayal of the title role - a man in love with dying chivalric skills and a moribund chivalric ethic - that gives it point.

All films open tonight: see facing page for details

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living