NEW FILMS

ARMAGEDDON

(12) HH

Director: Michael Bay

Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton

This deeply stupid film purports to be a tender love story, a meaty action-adventure and a global disaster movie. Quite bafflingly, it often struggles to be all of these things at once, with almost every moment carefully engineered to include something for all the family.

Dad will enjoy the gruff camaraderie of the deep-core drillers dispatched to sabotage the course of a meteor which is heading for Earth. The love of the chief driller, Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), for his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), should please Mum, while the candy-coated exchanges between Grace and her fiance, AJ (Ben Affleck), will keep Big Sister quiet. Kid Brother is sure to be thrilled whenever a burning car sails through the air, and there's even a treat for Fido when a chunk of flaming rock transforms the centre of New York into a charred crater, but cannot silence a yapping dog.

No one involved in Armageddon seems to have realised that trying to satisfy the demands of every appetite can only result in a jumble of tones and tastes. Consuming the film can be like eating an entire three-course meal pureed into a single serving - one mouthful yields a pungent collision of incompatible flavours.

Director Michael Bay's picture has a problem with the complexities of identity, and not only in terms of its audience profile. In Armageddon, the world's countries are acknowledged - which at least marks an advance on Deep Impact, in which the end of the world apparently only posed a threat to a stretch of motorway and some desirable beachfront properties. But is being represented by crude picture-postcard tableaux any better than not being represented at all? Armageddon gives us a crowd at prayer before the Taj Mahal; wise old sages at a Shanghai soup stall; and hip young things crowded around a Parisian cafe table.

The film does have some fun with its heroes, an assembly of misfits and sociopaths who have spent their lives on oil rigs. "Talk about the Wrong Stuff," one character remarks as the team convene for that traditional

slow-motion walk toward the camera, looking for all the world like a space-age Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

One of America's favourite self-defining symbols is the lantern-jawed cowboy, a figure who is resurrected in Armageddon after spending most of this decade on the subs' bench. As Bruce Willis plays him, Harry could eat John Wayne as an hors d'oeuvre, if real men ate hors d'oeuvres, that is. He is straight-talking and fiercely macho; his face is as craggy and impervious as the meteor that he is trying to destroy.

This whole end-of-the-world nonsense turns out to simply be a preamble to Grace and AJ's wedding, though in all the excitement, everyone seems to have forgotten the small matter of France being wiped out in the final reel. We are supposed to be soothed by the fact that AJ has survived. I am not being ungrateful: he has a cheeky smile and an adorable way of cocking his head and batting his eyelids when he is trying to be sincere. But as a substitution for 2,000 years of culture and history, I am not sure he really cuts it.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD

(U) HHHH

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone

A perfect antidote to the bombast of Armageddon can be found in Curtiz's merry and inventive romp, one of the greatest swashbucklers ever made. Graceful fighting sequences, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Oscar-winning soundtrack, jazzy pacing and a general air of joie de vivre make it the most enticing family film on show this summer.

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD

(18) HH

Director: John Hillcoat

Starring: Tcheky Karyo, Rachel Griffiths

Nick Cave was one of the musical consultants on this heady melodrama, and indeed the whole film feels like one of his own murder ballads stretched out for two hours. Actually, it's the work of John Hillcoat, who made the intense prison drama, Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, but here throws together too many over-heated cliches to form a kind of low-rent Vertigo, with Tcheky Karyo remaking his lover, Rachel Griffiths, in the image of his former wife. See Wide Angle, p16

ZERO EFFECT

(15) HHH

Director: Jake Kasdan

Starring: Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller, Ryan O'Neal

Jake Kasdan is a 22-year-old following in the footsteps of his writer-director father, Lawrence (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon), demonstrating some of the same flaws as Dad (incongruous use of symbols, over-reliance on irony), but generally pulling off an impressive debut. Pullman is excellent as Daryl Zero, the world's greatest private investigator, a drop-out who subsists on tuna fish, Tab and amphetamines, pulling on reserves of wit and ingenuity when the time comes to crack a new case. And when Pullman gets to play scenes with Stiller, who plays Zero's well-groomed go-between, it is like watching a fireworks display - this pair crackles. Ultimately, the film feels a little shallow and self-conscious, but it puts a smile on your face for most of its duration.

Ryan Gilbey

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