Bruce, Terry and Brad's excellent adventure

THE CRITICS: Film

Films are strange things, Bruce Willis's character ponders woozily. (He's on the run and exhausted, holed up in a cinema watching a revival of Hitchcock's Vertigo.) You see a movie again after many years, and it seems to have changed utterly, though you know that it's really exactly the same; all the change has been in you. This apercu is unlikely to win Bruce a seminar at the next Phenomenological Congress in Perugia, but its aptness to Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (15) - a film much possessed with the big, old questions of memory, identity and time - is manifold.

When I first saw the movie last year, I had just been reminiscing about the tremendous impact of first seeing Chris Marker's La Jetee (1962), the avant-garde short on which Twelve Monkeys is based. By contrast with the melancholic economy of Marker's piece, which is shot almost entirely in still images and runs a scant half-hour, Gilliam's feature seemed ponderous and pampered. Watching the film for a second time last Monday, having put Marker's piece firmly out of my mind in quest of absolute justice, I still thought Twelve Monkeys was too raucous. This time, though, it also seemed like the most thoughtfully unconventional science-fiction film in ages, with the rare courage to let its more serious notions count for as much as its gosh-wowery.

Gilliam's screenwriters, David and Janet Peoples, have faithfully held over the main chronological quirks from La Jetee, and added some of their own. Both films follow the unhappy adventures of a convict (here called Richard Cole, and played by Willis), suffering from a lifelong fixation on a cryptic image from his childhood, who is shuttled back and forth through time between a devastated future world and the 20th century. In La Jetee, the global disaster was a nuclear war, a topical anxiety in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis; Twelve Monkeys hypothesises a similarly topical fear for our time - a virus, apparently unleashed on purpose by an animal rights group styling itself the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, which spreads in the last month of 1996 and claims five billion lives, forcing the few survivors to live underground. Animals rule the surface again; one of Twelve Monkeys' gloomier intimations is that they deserve it.

Cole's task is not to avert the plague but simply to track down its origins for the benefit of 2035. Since the workings of future science in Monkeys are as erratic as the functionings of bureaucracy in the parallel reality of Gilliam's Brazil, however, Cole initially overshoots 1996 and lands back in 1990. There he is banged up in an asylum to suffer the indignities of Thorazine and having to watch Brad Pitt overact shamelessly in the role of Jeffrey Goines, a gibbering bundle of tics and snorts who just happens to be the son of a leading virologist (Christopher Plummer). More happily, he also encounters the beautiful Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), but is yo-yoed back to 2035 before their inevitable romance can flower. Then the film moves up into thriller gear: Cole is given a second chance at his mission, gets sent back through time again, ricochets off the trenches of 1917 and lands up in 1996, where he kidnaps Dr Railly and pursues Goines's gang, with the cops close behind.

Just in case anyone in the audience is still following, these complexities are further compounded by intermittent flashbacks to Cole's chlldhood vision, some red herrings, and a spectral voice which rasps paranoid suggestions in Cole's inner ear, opening up the possibility he may be bonkers after all. It ought to add up to box-office disaster, especially since Gilliam has kept faith almost completely with La Jetee's doggedly feel-bad ending (though there's an upbeat final twist, driven home by the script's funniest line) but Twelve Monkeys performed handsomely in the United States, even after word got out that this was no Timecop.

As you'd expect from Gilliam, it can be awesome to look at: madcap warrens and cages, crackpot gadgetry and bricolage for the future scenes, lavish urban squalor for the present, and, in one rapturous sequence, giraffes, elephants and pink herons streaming across and above the freeways of Philadelphia. More surprising is the acting: Willis does some. Gilliam has whipped the twinkles and smirks out of him and it's done Willis the world of good. An introverted stumblebum, bald, battered, grimy and often drooling, Willis's Cole is just what the film needs to give it human weight - a pathos galaxies away from Chris Marker, but potent in its own right, and more than enough to help make Twelve Monkeys a sublime folly, rather than a big mistake.

If the highest art is to conceal art, then Smoke (15), directed by Wayne Wang from a script by the indecently gifted novelist Paul Auster, is safely nestled near the top of the pantheon. A film populated by compulsive storytellers - breeze-shooters, confessionalists, bullshit merchants - and itself structured like an interlocking set of anecdotes, Smoke unfolds in such a deliciously relaxed manner that you hardly register how complex its workings are. Sometimes it seems as if hardly anything is happening, and yet there's enough incident for a handful of more ordinary films.

The locus for its actions is the Brookyn Cigar Co, a neighbourhood tobacconist's run by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), whose regulars include Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a writer in mourning for his wife who was accidentally shot, while pregnant, in a nearby hold-up. Paul has writer's block, but the curse gradually lifts after a young black man, Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr), saves him from being run over. Rashid moves in with Paul for a while, but then goes off in search of his estranged father (Forest Whitaker), whose own life was also ruined by a car accident. And so on, and so back.

Apart from the fact that its actors are on top form - Harvey Keitel, renouncing all his usual menace, has seldom been so charismatic - what makes Smoke so deeply satisfying is the grace with which it introduces and resolves its themes. Auster's characters are bound by the circulation of money; by their need to be fathers, or play fathers, or find fathers; by the touch of the artist in each of them; by the place of coincidence in their lives. Auster called one of his novels The Music of Chance; it would have been a suitable alternative title for Smoke, which incidentally has a nicely judged soundtrack, encompassing Tom Waits and Keith Jarrett's readings of Shostakovitch - a cheerful cultural mongrelism which echoes the film's optimistic faith that democracy and decency can sometimes raise people, maybe to their own bewilderment, above the tiresome antagonism of race and sex and class. At its best, this spirit makes Smoke reminiscent of Renoir; reminiscences don't come much better than that.

Barbet Schroeder's Before and After (12) takes a premiere league cast (Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep), a fairly good premise (what would happen to a nice, liberal family if their teenage son were wanted for a brutal murder?) and that reliable warhorse, the courtroom drama, and slowly and meticulously sets about draining all three of interest. One of the fatal flaws is that the son (Edward Furlong) is such a repellent little sulk that you stop caring about the alleged murder and start hoping that the kid will get the chair for petulance in the first degree. Another is that the film is suffocatingly genteel: apart from a welcome rush of vulgarity in the person of a pushy Greek lawyer (Alfred Molina), there's hardly anything on screen except noble suffering.

Unzipped (15) is a slight, artily artless documentary about the American frock maker Isaac Mizrahi and how his Autumn 94 collection was put together. Mizrahi is a gift for the camera, and doesn't he know it: camp as Christmas, a pop-Wildean aphorist and chatterbox ("It's almost impossible to have style nowadays without the right dogs") and a pretty fair pianist (Debussy a speciality), Mizrahi makes good company for at least half the film's 74-minute running time. Directed by Mizrahi's then-lover, Douglas Keeve, the film understandably lacks much distance. The final catwalk show, for which Unzipped blossoms into gaudy colour, features several mega-models and is uncritical, not to say swooning, enough to make you mutter darkly about the propaganda movies of the late Thirties - unless, that is, you simply can't get enough turquoise fun fur in your life.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14. David Thomson on Bruce Willis: see Review section, page 22.

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