Cinema: In which black guys finish last

STEVEN SPIELBERG wants to be the popcorn Eisenstein, recasting history's harrowing moments as sentimental spectacle for mass consumption. And there need be nothing wrong with that. Amistad (15) takes the man in the Clapham multiplex back to 1839, when a contraband cargo of African slaves broke free of their shackles and staged a successful mutiny against their Cuban captors. It might have been Spielberg's Battleship Potemkin. But instead of a story about enslaved people fighting for their freedom, he has produced one about how their lawyers got them off on a technicality.

Disappointingly unwilling to trust the African end of this story, Spielberg decides not to focus on the mutiny itself, but to leap for safety into its legal aftermath in the American courts - in which the heroism of the slaves is delegated to a handful of bankable Hollywood actors (including Morgan Freeman, present to make this process seem less of a whitewash). The morality of slavery is not the issue being contested in these 19th- century Connecticut courtrooms. Instead, the fate of the Africans depends on the ability of their advocates to prove that they have never lived on a Cuban slave plantation. If they've never rolled tobacco in Havana, then they've been captured illegally. If they have, then the chains stay on and everything's nice and legal. Anthony Hopkins is the chief orator, buried under layers of wrinkled latex as ex-President John Quincy Adams. Hopkins plays Adams as a frock-coated Yoda, pottering around with a walking stick, occasionally turning on the glassy-eyed profundity, and biding his time for a show-stopping speech to the US Supreme Court.

Though he has somehow found his way to the top of the billing, Morgan Freeman is horribly wasted in the role of abolitionist Theodore Joadson, and his sidelining is symptomatic of the film's broader unwillingness to let the black characters speak for themselves. Spielberg only allows one of the African prisoners, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) an individual voice, and compounds the problem by indulging in the crude eroticisation of Cinque's fellow-captives. Though they are supposed to be on the edge of starvation, every male slave seems to be an eight-foot gym-bunny with washboard abs. It makes for an uncomfortable mix of plush infotainment and white-male locker-room angst.

But there is some stylistic bravery on show. We have to wait nearly half an hour for our first line of English-language dialogue, an effective disorientating device for British and American audiences - but one that's somewhat undermined by Spielberg's insistence on providing a CNN-style name caption for the entry of every new character. And subtitling is also used for comic effect: as the American legal team make ineffectual efforts to communicate with their clients, the Africans' subtitled response is "I didn't understand a word of it. It's gibberish." It's a nice joke, but both George of the Jungle and Spice World: The Movie have beaten Spielberg to it. And the scene in Close Encounters in which Francois Truffaut plays Jean-Michel Jarre hits to the UFOs is a more eloquent take on a similar subject.

So how does Amistad fit into the Spielberg filmography? Though the obvious comparison would seem to be Schindler's List, it actually has much more in common with ET. Aliens get stranded in America, hunted by officialdom, and eventually returned home by a gang of kindly middle-class white folks. Like the cute bicycling creature of whom he's a distant cousin, Cinque is also granted a heartbreaking pidgin-English catchphrase. It's "Give us our free," but it might as well be "ET phone home".

From John Quincy Adams to Grizzly Adams: Anthony Hopkins whips off his rubber muppet make-up and enters, pursued by a bear, for Lee Tamahori's The Edge (15), a wilderness-survival drama scripted (though you wouldn't know it) by playwright David Mamet. Hopkins plays Charles Morse, a billionaire businessman married to supermodel Elle Macpherson (whose character's name, Mickey Morse, must surely be a backhanded jibe about her acting ability). Hopkins's nights on bear mountain begin when a flock of phoney digital geese smash through the windscreen of a light aircraft transporting him and fashion photographers Robert (Alec Baldwin) and Stephen (Harold Perrineau) over the Canadian Rockies. When they crash-land in a mountain lake, the windscreen has miraculously reformed itself, making their escape tricky. But once ashore, things get even hairier, as they're stalked by 1,400 pounds of flesh-eating Kodiak bear - played by distinguished ursine performer Bart, an animal with a longer cv than Elle Macpherson. Bart gets his brunch, and Perrineau falls victim to that aged Hollywood rule that it's the black actors who always get killed first.

Those looking to improve their Anthony Hopkins impressions are well-served by Tamahori, who coaxes the actor into laying on all his most familiar mannerisms. Novices start here: scratch away at your stubble (white is best). Say "yah", never "yes". Pronounce the word "lure" as "la-yoore". Cultivate distracted, halting speech, and sprinkle liberally with little interjections like "huh", "oh", "hum", "ah" and "hah". His technique for singlehandedly kebabbing a ferocious man-eating bear, however, should not be tried at home.

Though he doesn't actually appear in them, Hopkins is a powerful influence on the rest of this week's releases. In Barbet Schroeder's dumb-ass actioner Desperate Measures (15), Andy Garcia's cop needs the bone marrow of Michael Keaton's Lecter-ish chained psychopath to save his son's life. Under a badger-striped quiff, Brian Cox (the original Hannibal the Cannibal) co-stars as a hardboiled Irish-American police chief, and is made to bark things like "How many people are gonna die so that your kid can live?" with the viciousness of a panellist on The Moral Maze. Garcia, meanwhile, seems to use his jumping -and-fighting-oriented role to pitch for the parts Sylvester Stallone is now too old to play, and chunters through his lines so quickly that you almost fail to hear how bad they are. (He surely sets some sort of sound speed record with "IfyoukillmysonI'llripyourfuckingheadoff!") Intentional humour is left to Keaton, who plays McCabe as a sociopathic spoon-puppet, popping out from behind doors and up from operating tables when everyone - with the possible exception of the audience - least expects it.

My phobia about razors is so bad, I have to shave with my eyes shut. So I didn't have a whole lot of fun watching Scott Reynolds's The Ugly (18), a Kiwi horror flick about (another) throat-slashing serial killer. Dr Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Hobbs, in a rather unprofessional red sleeveless cocktail dress) probes the past of her sinister patient, Simon (Paulo Rotondo), and learns that he's haunted by "the Visitors". (Not Abba's swansong album, just the hideously mutilated ghosts of his victims.) Reynolds, on the other hand, is in thrall to the spectre of Anthony Hopkins, and despite some bold stylism and daffy humour, can't prevent The Ugly feeling like it should have been called Silence of the New Zealand Lambs.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

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