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AIR FORCE ONE

Director: Wolfgang Petersen Starring: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close (15)

Harrison Ford has made some transitions in the course of his 20-year reign as the Mr Reliable of mainstream American cinema. First he was the wisecracking adventurer of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Then it seemed as though he was briefly attracted to the idea of filling Cary Grant's shoes, in Working Girl and Sabrine. Most recently, he has become a staple part of stodgy "grown up" thrillers like Clear and Present Danger and The Devil's Own. His new film, Air Force One, in which he plays a no-nonsense President forced to put his tough words on terrorism into action, fits squarely into the latter category, though it has flashes of absurdity that wouldn't have been sanctioned in those earlier films.

Air Force One is the name of the Presidential plane, which is hijacked hours after the President has delivered a startling anti-terrorist address. The unwritten rule of American thrillers is that if you want a truly psychotic villain, hire a Brit - so we get Gary Oldman, in a clipped Russian accent that's as nasty as his beard, threatening to shoot a hostage every half hour.

In its conception, the film feels very much like a right-wing response to the current President's more liberal impulses. Ford's character is a Vietnam veteran who you don't imagine has ever seen a joint, let alone dragged on one. He's a straight-up tough guy who's willing to kick a few Russian butts if it means getting his house in order.

As a thriller, Air Force One delivers tension - but only by the teaspoon. Petersen is an efficient action director, and he gets plenty of opportunities to pay homage to his own first feature, Das Boot, with lots of tours around the plane's innards. But he can throw in a single shot that can ruin the effect of an entire scene, such as during a spectacular parachute jump, when he cuts to a grinning hostage glad to be on her way back down to earth. It's nice that she's one less person to worry about - heaven knows the film's body-count is already high enough - but cutting to her safe departure detracts from the gravity of the scenario.

It's not like the film needs lightening up - Oldman's performance doesn't demand the theatricality of his villainous role in The Fifth Element, but he has a gas all the same, and when he gets that evil twinkle in his eye, it's hard to take your eyes off him.

187

Director: Kevin Reynolds Starring: Samuel L Jackson, John Heard (15)

You will be relieved to hear that the title 187 refers not to the running time of this well-intentioned drama, but to the police code for a homicide. Trevor Garfield (Samuel L Jackson) is a Brooklyn science teacher who becomes acquainted with those three numbers when he flunks a student. We've all put drawing pins on the teacher's chair, but this particular disgruntled pupil expresses his annoyance more explicitly, first by scrawling "187" all over his tutor's textbooks, and then by stabbing him in the back.

When we flash forward, to join Garfield after his recovery as he goes about his new life as a supply teacher in Los Angeles, the film swaps the mortuary blues and greys of its prologue for soothing golden sunlight. You won't see the line "From the director of Waterworld" anywhere near the posters for 187, but Kevin Reynolds does a fine job of forging a cinematic language for his hero's state of mind.

The picture opens with some prosaic but kinetic images, as Garfield cycles to work across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty appearing to be cowering in the distance, flanked by cranes that sabotage the monument's grandeur. The menace of the Los Angeles locations isn't so implicit. Jarring with the holiday-brochure hues are Reynolds' slow-motion portraits of the thugs whose sideways glances feed Garfield's paranoia. Meanwhile, the principal refuses to mediate - while Garfield fears every student as a potential attacker, the principal regards each of them as a lawsuit waiting to happen.

This situation of ethical stalemate is crisply presented by the writer, Scott Yagemann, who is more successful in his attempts to portray a system in chronic disrepair than he is trying to channel anger through his characters.

The script ultimately asks too much of Reynolds and he responds with a decision that feels very much like throwing in the towel, as he shoots the struggling students graduating in slow-motion in the final scene, a banal pay-off to a movie distinguished by its visual audacity. But there is some unexpected honesty on the way, in the eager young pupil who is so delighted to have a handsome tutor encouraging her to study that she responds in the only way she knows how - by stripping naked and offering herself on the sofa.

It's interesting too that 187 is located in the twilight world somewhere between gritty authenticity and surreal fantasy. This initially engaging tone, teetering on absurdity, escalates to the point where the final showdown involves a group of hoods imitating their favourite scene from The Deer Hunter. Last I heard, Russian roulette had yet to replace the drive-by shooting as the L.A. homeboys' execution of choice.

THE WATERMELON WOMAN (below)

Director: Cheryl Dunye Starring: Valerie Walker, Camille Paglia (18)

This mock documentary, focusing on a young black lesbian's attempts to research the history of a black actress known only as "The Watermelon Woman", is intriguing only through its use of fabricated movie footage; what the form promises, the content falls short of delivering. The cultural importance of film icons is neatly emphasised, with nostalgia spinning off from interviewees as they riff on memories of cinema, though it's all too ingratiating to make its political points with any force.

Ryan Gilbey

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