The Critics: Who said that xenophobia never pays?

Pepe le Moko U Men with Guns 15 Lethal Weapon 4 15 The Doom Generation 18 Kissing a Fool 15
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The Independent Culture
In days long gone, criminals and policemen operated to a set of gentlemanly rules. They conducted their business with impeccable good manners, never resisting arrest or refusing anyone a last cigarette. Unless, of course, they were foreign.

The re-release of Julien Duvivier's Pepe le Moko (1937) takes us back to the Casbah in colonial Algiers, where the suave jewel thief of the title (Jean Gabin) is hiding out from the police. It's the perfect bolt- hole, as his pursuers will hardly dare enter its labyrinthine alleys. For the gendarmes, the terrors of the Casbah lie in its multi-ethnicity. They go charging into the Arab quarter of Algiers dressed in fedoras and raincoats, but they don't stand a chance of penetrating this dark Oriental space. A narration enumerates - with mounting horror - the different racial groups who dwell here: "Chinese! Slavs! Blacks!" It's a fascinating snapshot of French xenophobia. Duvivier's crime melodrama is more than just a period piece. It has a magnetic star in Jean Gabin, who radiates doomed, dignified masculinity. His Pepe is so wracked by nostalgia for la belle France that he falls in love with the heroine (Mireille Blalin) because she smells of the Paris Metro.

And the film has Duvivier's high stylishness too, exemplified by an extraordinary sequence which is granddaddy to all those scenes where characters get killed to the accompaniment of a jolly soundtrack (Reservoir Dogs, Cape Fear, etc). The informer Regis (Fernand Charpin) has sold out Pepe's protege, Pierrot (Gilbert-Gil), and Pepe politely confines the offender in a room above a coffee-house. Then a battered Pierrot appears at the door. Blubbering in terror, Regis backs away into a corner, and accidentally sets the pianola into motion. A crazily cheerful tune belts out as, supported by two of the gang, Pierrot staggers towards Regis, the boy's gun pointing towards the traitor's head. I'll not give away the ending. Go see it. It's the kind of cinema that makes you want to get up and cheer. But that would probably be a breach of etiquette.

John Sayles is that rare thing, a truly serious American director. His new movie, Men with Guns, makes no concessions to anyone. It has lush production values and no bankable stars. Its subject is political oppression in Central America. The film is in Mayan and Spanish with English subtitles. Beat that for integrity. Sayles's movie is a Heart of Darkness-style story about an elderly doctor, Fuentes (Federico Luppi), who attempts to track down a group of former students, despatched two years previously to establish medical

practices in remote villages. The doctor's voyage through unknown areas of his own country is like a journey across an alien planet. Just as Flash Gordon encountered the Clay People and the Lion Men in different regions of the planet Mongo, Fuentes crosses the paths of the Salt People, the Coffee People, the Sugar People and the Sky People - insular communities living in fear of death at the hands of the hombres armados. Slowly, he discovers that his students have been butchered: some by the army for giving medical help to rebel guerrillas, some by the rebels for helping bandage soldiers' wounds. It's a film about how one country can be concealed inside another, how a government can hide the truth from its people, and how fear and terror can quickly destroy science and reason.

Sometimes Sayles is too insistent on these themes; for instance, he has a priest accompany his hero for part of the way, and suddenly the script is all earnest moral debate. But when he is letting his points make themselves, his movie is transfixing.

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover - two ageing men with guns - totter back for more in Lethal Weapon 4; thankfully director Richard Donner has the good grace to make their encroaching decrepitude a running gag. "I'm not too old for this shit," chants a rattled Gibson, now visibly paunchier than his stuntman. Audiences may have to do the same thing in order to persuade themselves that they shouldn't be watching something a little more demanding. A movie less so would be hard to conceive: "The faces you love, the action you expect," wows the poster, pulling no punches about the predictability of its product. But I was rather surprised by one element: the script's enormous number of iffy racial jokes. At one point, Gibson goes into a Chinese restaurant owned by a gang boss called Uncle Ben, and asks for "flied lice". Uncle Ben is furious. "It's fried rice, you plick!" he retorts. Do we need this sort of stuff any more? And, more important, is that Mel Gibson's real hair?

Despite having a plot that finds room for talking severed heads, sperm- drinking and all manner of splatter-porn antics, Greg Araki's The Doom Generation is, in its own way, as comfortable with its conventions as a Lethal Weapon film. Rose McGowan is a scarlet-lipped teen on the run with two kooky male sidekicks, just as she was in last year's Lewis and Clark and George. James Duval is her waifish boyfriend, who announces, "I feel like a gerbil slithering up Richard Gere's butthole." Johnathon Schaech is a Mrs Sloane-ish killer who has sex with them both. As people do in films like this, Araki's trio drive from motel to motel, leaving a trail of junk food and severed arms. The end credits are pretty original, however: Araki offers special thanks to "Cheryl Ladd, and Mum and Dad", and signs off: "Go out and buy the f---ing soundtrack album". It's probably better than the movie.

Doug Ellin's comedy Kissing a Fool has a complex narrative structure modelled, I'd guess, after Wuthering Heights. Bonnie Hunt is a Nelly Dean- type storyteller who relates a tale of high romance to which she wasn't a witness. Unfortunately, it's hardly worth the telling. This is the story of a sports reporter with a severe side parting (Friends's David Schwimmer) and a preppy novelist with an even more severe side parting (Jason Lee, the one in Chasing Amy who wasn't Ben Affleck), and how they both fall for the same girl (Mili Avital). Ellin makes a feeble pitch at the tart emotional honesty of the Kevin Smith comedy from which Lee was headhunted. But he's not brave enough to resist ladling on the syrup. In fact, the film's only genuine moment of truth is when Schwimmer's character exclaims: "I can look, I can smile; I just can't act."

And who am I to argue?