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Film: The dark knight returns

Always uncompromising in his choice of film role, Michael Keaton injects new life into the psycho-killer genre.

Say what you want about Michael Keaton, he's no company man. An agent's nightmare, he defies typecasting and revels in risk. A man most unobvious, he has switched between hyper-kinetic comedy and brooding dramatics with consummate ease, blending humour with a disturbed streak, much to the chagrin and puzzlement of studio heads and fans alike.

"There are very few directors who have the courage to take a chance with somebody or to have an imagination," laments the 46-year-old, who wears his years as finely as his ovular shades, occasionally lapsing into wacky asides for show. "Usually, they go by what they think is the obvious choice, or by whose movie made the most money last." Those he cites favourably, unsurprisingly, include Barbet Schroeder and Quentin Tarantino, the men behind Keaton's latest projects. Schroeder's Desperate Measures, a film the director calls his "brother-sister to [his] Single White Female", sees Keaton buck the trend once more. Playing a convicted serial killer, he is sought out as the only possible bone marrow donor for cop Andy Garcia's young son, leading to inevitable escape and chase. Tarantino's long-awaited Jackie Brown puts Keaton on the other side of the law in an almost-supporting role, an "average intelligence" cop attempting to bust Pam Grier's money- loving air hostess.

Given a laughable script in the former, and a threadbare part in the latter, both symbolise Keaton's career to date. Unlike his last outing, in Harold Ramis's concept comedy Multiplicity (a film that figuratively and literally stands for Keaton's talent), in which he played four cloned variations of the same work-weary individual, he is too often let down by limp lines that malfunction, but able to rise above the mire and demonstrate what Schroeder notes as his "hyper-vigilant" nature.

Not one to compromise, Keaton's admiration is for those who tell the truth. Names like Nicholson, Duvall, Arkin and De Niro all emerge in the conversation, people Keaton willingly praises. And it's a work ethic he practices, to the point of perfection or obsession, depending on your point of view. With Brown, "There were certain things Quentin wanted me to do that I didn't want to. Criminals and cops are real close, real close. It wasn't that hard for him to relate sympathetically to her and I thought it was more interesting than just having two cops trying to nail this woman. Whether you see that or not doesn't matter. It was for me. Very subtle and low-key. That wasn't in the script; he was supposed to be a little stupid, a little cliched". Exploring the dark side and physicality of man is a Keaton pre-occupation.

"There's something to be said for the physical strength inside you. It makes you feel powerful. When I mas getting ready to do the first Batman, I would walk around London hoping someone would approach me so I could kick their ass." Ah yes, Batman. That unwieldy franchise that Keaton stepped off, along with director Tim Burton, before Joel Schumacher failed to paint it black. While voluminous protests at his original casting from aficionados even made the Wall Street Journal, abandoning the project was seen as ludicrous in the eyes of Hollywood. Does Keaton now feel content with his move to eschew a potential $35 million pay-cheque, in favour of multiple personalities and serial killers?

"I know what you mean, I think," he strains, "but I pretty much felt vindicated when I said `I don't want to do this'. And I actually did want to do it, if the movie was going to go in the right direction. I thought we'd had a good start with the first one, and did pretty well with the second. It was so rich with possibilities. I know that everyone said it was too dark, but dark was interesting for that movie. He's a fascinating character, potentially. Everybody finally came round to my way of thinking." Anyone who saw Batman and Robin would agree.

Freely denying that he is to reprise the role for a cameo in Tim Burton's forthcoming Superman Lives, Keaton is his own best PR agent and it seems, always right - at least in his own eyes. Yet choices haven't always been good.

After his explosive debut as manic morgue attendant-cum-part-time pimp in Nightshift, along came the anodyne role-reversal Mr Mom and lame gangster spoof, Johnny Dangerously, rejecting in the process the chance to play the Tom Hanks part in Splash. Fired from the set of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo after just three days, Ron Howard's jingoistic Gung Ho, a film Keaton still remains embarrassed about, came next.

Out went a lead in Stakeout, in came flops Touch and Go and The Squeeze. And yet, Batman was his first film since Nightshift which didn't carry his name first on the credits. Offered a four-picture deal by Twentieth Century Fox after shooting Dangerously, his third movie, Keaton commanded cachet even then. But it wasn't until his shining performance in the ensemble- cast The Dream Team, along with his alcoholic coke-fiend in Clean and Sober and his malicious ghoul in his first Burton collaboration Beetlejuice that moguls noticed he could act. He was promptly rewarded with the National Society of Film Critics' Best Actor award for 1988.

Subsequent to Batman, and its first sequel, Keaton dropped off the power- list, turning up in average fare like My Life, The Paper and Speechless, but still pulling the odd coup: his psychotic tenant in Pacific Heights or the fleeting appearance as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (a self-confessed favourite). Forever striving for a fresh approach, Keaton recently dumped the Farrelly brothers' Kingpin in favour of Measures, a film from a tired genre which also gave him concern: "We're running out of new ways to do things. So many people have done it so well. There's a scene where Malkovich kills somebody, he's a bad guy in some movie [not Con Air, we establish, a movie Keaton derides for its lack of questions asked]. I saw that and thought `God, I always wanted to kill a guy like that in a movie and now I can't do it'."

Keaton remains as committed off as he is on screen. A board member of the American Rivers organisation, devoted to protecting the country's waterways, his social conscience stems from his student days at Kent State, Ohio, where he majored in Speech (only to drop out to spend time on a Navajo Reservation). Keaton, the youngest of seven children, performed from an early age, impersonating Elvis with Hershey-bar wrappers for sideburns. Heading to LA, after a period as a techie at Pittsburgh's WQED TV station, he changed his surname from Douglas for obvious reasons after seeing a picture of Diane Keaton in a newspaper, and fumbled in TV for five years, on the likes of The Tony Randall and Mary Tyler Moore shows, before landing Nightshift.

Down the line, and Keaton wants to "do some movies that are more adult in nature. Bigger themes: love and man-woman relationships". So quite why Frost, a special effects-driven caper, is slated is a mystery. His answer? "The unpredictable part of me. I just don't think there's anything I can do about that. That's God's gift and curse, I guess."

`Desperate Measures' opens next Friday. `Jackie Brown' is released on March 20.