The end of the world as we know it?

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The Independent Culture
DANNY CANNON'S Judge Dredd (15) is an example of the movie as self-fulfilling prophecy. Set in a dystopia of the third millennium, where remnants of mankind huddle in neon-lit, sky-scraping Mega-Cities, it portrays a world without human- ity: squalid, violent and anar- chic. Society has disintegrated, and an authoritarian oligarchy, the Judges, imposes a summary sort of order. The viewer of the film is left to guess the source of civilisation's malaise. Nuclear holocaust? (The British comic-strip on which the film is based was first published in 1977.) Natural disaster? Evolutionary obsolescence? Looking at this fallen world, devoid of culture, literacy, or humanity, you may decide that its true source is the sort of shabby farrago you see on the screen.

Two books have survived in Mega-City One: the law-book, which the Judges brandish with the zeal of American tele-evangelists; and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which we glimpse in the locker of Judge Dredd (Sylves- ter Stallone). Decline and fall sums up the film - though not through any Gibbonian sense of how the ancient world became the modern. We start with an exhilarating flight through the city, a futuristic hell of hologrammed advertisements and charred mementoes of New York (including a forlornly dwarfed Statue of Liberty). Then we crash-land into the plot. Stallone's Dredd has been framed by his evil brother Rico (Armand Assante) for the murder of a journalist. The sketchy details of Dredd's alleged crime, his trial and escape, are like lazy doodles in the margins of the film's savage scraps and lavish effects.

But the problem with Judge Dredd is not so much one of plot, as of tone. The comic book, with its close kinship to caricature, is a natural setting for irony: there is an innate satire in the reduction of life to a garish template. Film, however, is a realistic medium, lending sobriety to the wildest fantasy. The teasing ambivalence of the Dredd comics' artwork is lost in the film. The movie gleams with the authoritarian sheen of Stallone's gold epaulettes and stomps to his jack-booted march. What was once a satire on fascism looks like an apologia for it. That may be the inevitable price of turning a medium which is cheap and subversive into one that is expensively conformist.

There has been much debate among fans of the comic over the rights and wrongs of Dredd removing his helmet in the film. In fact, if it is the hero's anonymity that is at stake, the game is up long before Stallone is asked to "stand at ease" by his crusty superior (Max Von Sydow). Even under a helmet, Stallone's mouth is a give-away: its oddly feminine lips curl into an unmistakeable moue of defiance and contempt. The unmasking is just the first step in the film's shedding of its pretence to be anything other than a Stallone vehicle. By the end, when he wreaks havoc in a singlet, his giant biceps glistening with sweat, Stallone might just as well be Rambo.

The final reaction to Judge Dredd is not revulsion, or even boredom, but bafflement. Why did such a big-budget film spend so little on the script? Any Hollywood script-doctor could have provided Stallone's hapless comic sidekick (Rob Schneider) with a decent gag or two, for the cost of a second's computerised mayhem. And how is it that to- day's Hollywood, with all its technical wizardry and vast wealth, can only dream up a dystopia which pales beside those of Fritz Lang, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley? What have we done to deserve this craven new world?

Worse still is Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (PG).This spin- off from the television series tells the tale of "six extraordinary teenagers" saving the universe from slime-flinging villain Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman). Their mission - and our viewing - is alleviated by Dulcea (Gabrielle Fitzpatrick), a woman in a leather bikini who gives handy hints on tuning in to the spirits of sacred animals. The movie can't decide whether it wants to be winningly ramshackle, like the TV version, or more polished. The result is a mish-mash of slick special effects, clunky dialogue, haphazard continuity, and incongruous pilferings from films such as The Thirty- Nine Steps and Apocalypse Now.

If I sound over-enthusiastic about the rest of the week's releases, it's probably out of relief at having people to watch instead of special effects. The next three films are remarkably similar in theme and mood, the sort of poignant comedies that get overshadowed by the box-office behemoths. Together they form a trilogy dissecting the suffocating order and optimism of the 1950s - that Eisenhower-era brightness, beneath which Robert Crumb located the dark and dangerous American subconscious in Crumb (catch it if you can.)

A Man of No Importance (15) is, in fact, set in 1962; but this is Ireland, so we allow for time-lag. Albert Finney plays a gay bus-conductor who venerates Oscar Wilde. Rufus Sewell is Finney's rakish driver, bemused at being called Bosie: "I'm gonna find out who this Bosie is. Better be a bloke." Finney boldly plans to put on a performance of Salome with his amateur theatrical group. But his love still dares not speak its name. This is the time of the Profumo scandal, and there is much talk of Stephen Ward's "unspeakable sin". The film captures the ignorance, prejudice and complacent contempt of the times.

Finney is wonderful as the tortured hero. Cardiganed and bespectacled, with a puffed-up frown of concentration, he looks like a cosy schoolteacher. He shows us the man's decency and his hopelessness. When he cruises a pub for company, the agony of his sexuality is etched all over his timid, fearful face - terror battling desire. Later, once his illusions have been shattered, he braves the pub wearing full Wilde regalia. Though this coming-out feels more a refuge in fantasy than a true liberation, the film makes it clear that Finney's sensitivity, while opening him up to suffering, also provides him with the insight to withstand it.

A fine supporting cast includes Michael Gambon (a memorable Oscar Wilde himself on television), as Finney's chief tormentor; and Brenda Fricker, as Finney's sister, long suspicious of her brother's bookishness. Finney's response to the repression of his people is a form of pure aestheticism that becomes a paradigm of the Irish artist's struggle. The pleasure is in watching him, just like James Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus, flying by the nets of religion, family and nation.

The star-turn in Imaginary Crimes (PG) is Harvey Keitel, playing a man who is totally fake, but also completely charming. Like the father in Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill, Keitel is a would-be inventor, full of hare-brained fortune-making schemes - a self-deluding dreamer, forever waiting for his boat to come in. It is an unfamiliar Keitel: a Fifties spiv, with brilliantined hair, sharp suits and silver tie-clips. The film is told through the narration of his oldest daughter (Fairuza Balk, a girl suitably poised on the brink of womanhood), a promising student and writer, who regards her father with mounting ambivalence. Behind Keitel's charming, plausible exterior, there beats a reactionary heart, leading him to attempt to thwart his daughter's education for fear of "pinko professors". Keitel manages to endow this compulsive liar with a degree of tenderness. And the film, unusually literate and textured for today's Hollywood, presents him as an emblem for an uptight, self-deceiving era.

More Fifties filial frustration in Paul Warner's Fall Time (18). Three teenagers celebrate the end of their school term with a prank, designed to infuriate one of their fathers, which involves them dressing up as gangsters. It all goes frighteningly wrong, when a pair of real gangsters, in the form of Mickey Rourke and Stephen Baldwin, arrives on the scene. To reveal more would dissipate the sinister suspense of the first half. After that, things fall apart, but not before we've had an inkling of what a collaboration between David Lynch (there's even a shot of one of the mothers baking a cherry pie) and Quentin Tarantino would be like.

Cinema details: Review, page 82.

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