Cinema: Stallone and Liotta pull their paunches

Stallone. Liotta. Keitel. De Niro. Say them out loud in the husky transatlantic tones of the man on the legendary Denim advert. Impressive, isn't it? These men are icons of masculinity, a gang of guys who've come to personify a buckish true grit that's made them Pub Man's eternal pin- ups. But did you know they have a combined age of 207?

In Cop Land (15), James Mangold's thoroughly absorbing dissection of dilapidated machismo, the goodfellas quit posturing and bare their paunches. Stallone is a shambling New Jersey sheriff, deaf in one ear like James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (coincidentally rereleased this week); Liotta is a coked-up grifter, podgy and pockmarked; Keitel is a sour-faced thug whose small-time villainies go wholly unromanticised; De Niro is a sandwich-guzzling internal-affairs investigator with the moustache of Accountant Dad. You can almost see the beefcake turning to Spam.

With its murderous posses, jailhouses and shoot-outs, Mangold's film is a western masquerading as a hard-boiled police drama. But it uses the conventions of both genres to dramatise the seedy condition of modern American masculinity and the career crises of its ageing stars.

In his 1980s heyday, pumped-up former porn star Sylvester Stallone was the physical embodiment of simple-minded Reaganite muscularity. At 52, he's now too old to knock out Ruskie teeth or waste gooks with a machine- gun in each hand. So rather than resorting to soft focus or corsetry, Mangold has marinated Rambo in his own stale testosterone and recreated him as Freddy Heflin, a Bud-bellied suburban lawman who failed the medical for the NYPD.

It's mildly shocking to see Stallone in a part that requires him to deliver lines that are more than dumb-ass catchphrases like "Don't push me!" And though dialogue clearly isn't his forte, this film confirms him as a star of considerable magnitude. Often underestimated as just some Brass Age Victor Mature, Stallone exudes a mangy physicality that makes him as monumental and mournful as John Wayne in The Shootist, or one of those chunky, doe- eyed figures from Picasso's Post-Cubist period. Mangold takes the actor's monstrous, unwieldy body (deliberately bulked up round the gut with a preparatory diet) and stuffs it into shots that can barely contain its mass. The result is a performance of genuine complexity, and though Freddy Heflin never fulfils his dream of joining the New York cops, Stallone has now proved that he has every right to share top-line billing with actor's actors like De Niro.

As Cop Land's characters wallow in discredited boysiness on Screen 1, the all-female protagonists of Bruce Beresford's POW drama Paradise Road (15) are firmly encamped on the moral high ground. Based on the true story of how women prisoners resisted their Japanese captors by forming a vocal orchestra - but declining to offer the details that would give it verisimilitude - Beresford's script is a barbed-wire fence of cliche over which his cast attempt to somersault. "The war'll be over by Christmas," asserts an English-rose type. "Don't bet your futah on that, my dahlink," counters Frances McDormand's hard-as-nails German-Jewish doctor.

Paradise Road asserts the superior virtue of its European heroines by turning the Second World War into a battle between tonality and atonality. Kaboom! Japanese bombs bang percussively over Singapore - the soundtrack drowns them out with Elgar's Cello Concerto. Chudda-chudda-chudda! Jap planes attack a ship evacuating the cast, and the soundtrack returns fire with I Vow to Thee My Country. Once in their Kwai-style bamboo apartment with en suite hotbox, the women are soon fighting back with a vocalised rendition of Dvorak's New World Symphony. Though the script is mostly ridiculous, a batallion of heavyweight performances almost allow Beresford to get away with it. Pauline Collins burns with the quiet certitude that she used against the Nazis in last month's My Mother's Courage, and - looking like Dan Dare's impossibly glamorous sister - Glenn Close adds butch, beatific authority to their musical resistance. Gaze upon them and the film seems less like a cross between Ripping Yarns and Tenko.

Michael Oblowitz's This World, Then the Fireworks (18) is a sleazy noir with enough silk-stockinged perversion to satisfy jaded palettes. The story is unremittingly nasty: incestuous twins on a small-town sex-and- killing spree. But there's not enough genuine wit in the script to match the knowingly cool direction. Anti-hero Billy Zane has a pleasingly sadistic loucheness, though his fast-talking monologues are trite, and hampered by his unwillingness to separate his top and bottom teeth when speaking.

Zane is like a rouged waxwork of the young Marlon Brando, and Oblowitz enhances this ersatz beauty by casting wheezingly obese actors in all the other male roles. His co-stars Sheryl Lee and Gina Gershon have a comparable slatternly magnetism, though Lee gets a better deal from the script: Gershon is a two-bit comic strip kinderwhore with a penchant for poisoning, but Lee's masochistic carnality is more effectively fleshed out, and deeply unsettling. It's Zane, however, who gets the film's best scene, a piece of gruesome farce in which he skewers a private dick's head on his own letter-spike. Stylish and sick, like a Prada handbag full of vomit.

Sadism of a similar kidney is carved up by Curdled (no cert), a first feature from Tarantino protege Reb Braddock. Angela Jones stars as a sweet Colombian girl who joins a post-forensic clean-up team to satisfy her ghoulish interest in homicide. The workings of the duty roster give rise to some deliciously horrid gags ("Point-blank execution scenario, parquet floor" is one job offered to this team of apres-bloodbath Ms Mops) and Jones's confrontation with the serial killer who obsesses her is choreographed with sensational bravado. A superior exploitation flick, but the final few minutes are badly misjudged, and would have sent Edgar Lustgarten reaching for the sick bag.

Peter Hewitt's The Borrowers (U) is a classy entertainment that pits John Goodman's overfed capitalist Ocious Potter against the miniscule masses (in the form of Jim Broadbent and Celia Imrie, who, Swampy-like, have occupied his wainscot). Hewitt sets his action in a bewitchingly unspecific midatlantic town: policeman Hugh Laurie strolls with an automatic rifle through suburbs in which a Forties aesthetic dominates, but the only date given on-screen is 1999. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a film aimed at kids, Hewitt's main stylistic influence is clearly Terry Gilliam's Brazil, from which his film borrows its retro design and its abseiling finale. But it is inventive, charming, persuasive stuff, an extravaganza of literate fun that restages both Gulliver's Travels and the French Revolution in a store-cupboard.

John Greyson's Lilies (no cert) is decorous homoerotica shot in rich Pre-Raphaelite colours, but the film is somewhat constricted by the grammar of the stage-play on which it's based. Despite some bold cross-gender casting and a wicked sense of fun, there's precious little irony in Greyson's movie, something of an omission from a film that's got scenes of gamine boys snogging in a bathtub while the Latin Mass blares over the soundtrack.

Less self-conscious is Robert Geudiguian's Marius and Jeannette (15), an unsentimental tale of love between a big-mouthed checkout girl and a limping security guard. It's a well-observed comedy which is also that rare thing, a French film about working-class characters. Geudiguian adds depth to his fable by laying unmelodramatic emphasis on harsh economics, but cynics might baulk at his closing dedication to the workers of the world.

Cynics will also have trouble with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (U), but the tradition of distaste for the film is based on the misconception that it's all sentimental conservatism. Rereleased this week, the film now seems more communitarian that Amitai Etzioni, more Christian Socialist than Tony Blair and more enthusiastic about stakeholding than Will Hutton. Moreover, the way Capra moves his actors through his picture makes for the purest form of dynamic poetry Hollywood has ever produced. Remember the scene in which, left penniless on his honeymoon, James Stewart tips Ernie the cabman (Frank Faylen) with rainwater from the brim of his hat? That's not sentimentality, it's transcendental signification. Go see, go weep, go marvel.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.

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