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.

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