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Stallone's latest: a blast

`The Specialist' never asks you to care, but simply to wallow in its sensual overload
THE real sex in The Specialist (18, opening Boxing Day) is in explosions rather than bedrooms. After all the advance tabloid leering about the love scenes between Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone, the film turns out to be more smoky than steamy . True, it opens with Stallone squinting lasciviously through a pair of binoculars. But it is a bridge that he is gawping at, and that glint in his eye is dismay rather than desire. The bridge has been primed to explode, but Stallone has spotted a flaw.

"There's a kid in the car," he yells to his partner, James Woods. "Activate the fail-safe, you f---in' psycho!" Too late: a last rapturous close-up of the child's face, then we cut to the flames creeping up from the fuel tank, rising to a spectacular inferno as wave upon wave of explosions orgasmically shudder through the car. Satyriasis is not this director's problem; pyromania may be.

That was Bogota, 1984. We cut to Florida in the present, where Stallone and Woods, once an inseparable undercover team, "rigger and trigger", are coping with the accident's fall-out in different ways. Woods is the ruthless mastermind behind a Cuban crimefamily - including Rod Steiger (back at last), contorting his soft falsetto into an outlandish Latin American accent, a sybarite Godfather lounging by the pool, and his dumb young blade of a son, Eric Roberts. Stallone, meanwhile, ekes out a security-conscious life (his house is a multimedia Fort Knox) as a hired assassin. The gimmick is that he's a caring killer, artfully blasting away only selected victims. It so happens that Stone,who wants revenge for the killing of her parents, has se lected for Stallone the family to which Woods is acting as major-domo.

It sounds like, and is, hokum. But it works. This is film-making that never asks you seriously to believe, or care, but simply to wallow in its sensual overload and succumb to its trashy caress. It peddles its cliches with a shameless conviction that almost amounts to style. When we first see Stone, at her parents' grave, she is misty-eyed and bare-legged in a cut-away white dress. "Remembering what happened," she voices over. "That's what I do instead of living." For the most part, the script - interestingly, written by a woman, Alexandra Seros - has a rubbishy classicism. Only occasionally, does it overreach itself. "I never thought life could be so sticky," Stone continues. "I think I'll never wash it off." Yuk.

Stone knows how to play around with such stuff. She mocks the sauciness with her beauty, which is the more astounding for its fragility, its sense of imminent disintegration. Stallone too is oddly impressive. At a pinch, you might even believe in him as an expert bomber: his mix of power and delicacy, muscles and moues, fits a profession that trades in brutal precision. Stone and Stallone give their parts a glimmer of life, even though they are little more than iconic representations of the audience's desire. That is clear from a sequence which cuts between Sly's bare-chested work-out in the gym and Sharon's fish-netted walk round her apartment - his-and-hers fantasies.

Nevertheless, there is always a hierarchy in Hollywood, and this is very much Stallone's movie. It is in thrall to his macho persona. The most striking image of that sex scene is of Stone draping herself adoringly around Stallone's bulging torso, like a damsel worshipping a statue. And Stallone has a strange way of caressing Stone's head, with his arm distractedly reaching behind him, ruffling her hair with his palm, while he holds his gaze in front, away from her - as a man might stroke his cat, his mind fixed on weightier matters.

It is said that Stallone ordered changes to the original cut, to beef up his own part - and to diminish that of James Woods, who revels in a role that suits his intellectual bumptiousness. Surely, there must have been more development of that promising sapper-symbiosis between Woods and Stallone. We learn more about how their bombs tick than how their relationship does. And let's hope that, originally, there was less bone-crunching.

There are sequences that play like last-minute testosterone injections: Stallone being kicked full in the face (shades of Cliff-hanger's glib brutality); and a scene which could have been dropped in from any brawny blockbuster of the last decade, when Sly beats up a man on a bus for not giving up his seat to a lady. The age of chivalry is not dead. It's taking karate lessons.

Woeful though Junior was, it at least showed Schwarzenegger experimenting with softness, even vulnerability. Stallone - after his own comedy disasters - is now too insecure to foresake force. He reaches for it, like a crutch to wave at his box-office rivals, just when the film looks to be turning interesting. He should have had more faith in his promising director, Luis Llosa (whose debut was last year's dead-eyed Sniper), who is well up to delivering the required blockbuster, coating every frame in a s heen of portent. As it is, The Specialist looks set for a seasonal success. Like a Christmas cracker, it opens with a bang, is stuffed with cheap humour, and, for all the glossy packaging, is instantly disposable.

Michael Austin's Princess Caraboo (PG) is a surprise delight: an English film that knows exactly what it's doing, and does it with style. This 19th-century tale of an exotic-looking girl (Phoebe Cates) who arrives at a wealthy estate claiming to be a ship-wrecked princess, could easily have keeled over with portentousness or sailed away in whimsy. As it is, it never takes itself too seriously, which makes its tender observations about class, society, and the imagination the more telling. Cates is fetching and fascinating as the princess: with her sallow skin, guileless face, and jet-black hair peeping out from underneath a lilac and green turban, she looks like a Gauguin in a land of Gainsboroughs. She retains her mystery until almost the end. But Stephen Rae's captivated journalist is on her trail. Is she who she says she is, or nothing but a low-born impostor cocking a snook at a snooty system? Cates has wonderful support from a largely comic cast, including her real-life husband, Kevin Kline, who, as a supercilious Greek servant, nears the manic heights of his Otto in A Fish Called Wanda; and Jim Broadbent as his dim-witted, philandering master.

Chasing the Deer (PG) is also creditable: a shoestring-budget drama about the events leading to the battle of Culloden in 1715. It has things to say about tradition, nationalism and the atavistic urge to fight, but lacks much narrative pulse.

Otherwise, it's a choice between Macaulay Culkin in a cartoon, The Pagemaster (U), an engaging, underdeveloped fantasy, in which animated books lead him on adventures; or in tights, in The Nutcracker (U), a faithful version of the Christmas ballet, in which he looks lumberingly out of place. Which- ever you pick, you'll have to put up with Mac's dribbling, over-painted pout.

Please, no more lipstick in his stocking this Christmas.

Cinema details: Review, page 47.