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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future