Not heavenly, but forgive them their sins

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN A week book-ended by films with scenes set in the confessional, a petty confession of my own: I have never read any of James Lee Burke's half-dozen crime novels about Dave Robicheaux, the alcoholic, Catholic, former homicide cop from New Orleans who divides his days between craving hooch and agonising over the failures of his lonely crusade against the forces of darkness. Even from such a shaming position of ignorance, though, the gaps between intent and execution in Heaven's Prisoners (15) - taken from the second book in the series, and directed by Phil Joanou - are pretty glaring. One of them is called Alec Baldwin.

Recent form has shown that Baldwin can cut it nicely as an action hero (Red October), a comic-book hero (The Shadow), a scoundrel (Malice) and even a jolly good psycho (Miami Blues), but neither his unrumpled good looks nor his loose, cocky bearing suggest that Robicheaux's inner Stations of the Cross are anything more perplexing than a dose of athlete's foot. The film begins on a note of promising threat, with Baldwin's face adrift in the darkness as he rasps yearningly to a priest about his three years of hard sobriety, and Joanou piles on the spiritual torments with a long shot of Robicheaux walking into the depths of the church and genuflecting, dwarfed by its altar.

This overture sets the chump up for a terrible fall from grace, and yet when it finally comes, about half-way through - Robicheaux reaches deliberately for a brown bottle, flips the cap and chugs deeply - the result could be used as a beer commercial. And after this perfunctory binge (which includes a lovely shot of Robicheaux lying back in his boat, blissed-out on weak alcohol, as it circles endlessly round and round in the green scum of a bayou), it's back to the glasses of iced water and business as usual.

Very much as usual, since the film-makers have decided to sex up Burke's story, apparently an unhurried character study, with superfluous if well- staged bouts of action, notably a violent chase across the rooftops and onto a streetcar. Within these unremarkable limits, it's all quite professionally done. Robicheaux is living a quiet life, selling bait and trading sexy quips with his wife (Kelly Lynch) when a plane falls out of the sky and into deep water. He dives into the wreckage and saves a little Salvadoran girl whom he then adopts - an act of charity which somehow backfires (as, at a wild guess, it often does in Burke's novels), in ways far too complicated to summarise in a sentence of modest proportions, but which involve: the slaughter of his wife; a tough stripper with a heart of you-know-what (Mary Stuart Masterson, cast against type); and a sleazy local gang-boss, Bubba Rocque (Eric Roberts, cast wholly in type) who sports the most elaborate hairstyle worn by a Caucasian male this side of The Draughtsman's Contract.

Just to round out the complete set of old gangster movie stand-bys, Bubba and Robicheaux used to be chums at school - "he was one of those guys eatin' light- bulbs and pushin' thumb-tacks into his knee-caps," Robicheaux reminisces fondly - and Bubba is married to a boozy belle dame sans merci, Claudette (Teri Hatcher), who may know more about the plot than she's letting on, and certainly more than most members of the audience, who will probably still be wondering about the tattoo on the dead guy in that crashed plane. If you don't fret too much about whether it all adds up to anything, about what the portentous title is meant to signify, Heaven's Prisoners is reasonably diverting - which, in a conspicuously feeble week for new product, puts it well ahead of the pack.

A rapid sprint through the other releases takes in two mildly OK comedies, of which the superior specimen is, unexpectedly, Down Periscope (PG) - a star vehicle for Kelsey Grammer of Frasier and Cheers. Grammer plays a pleasant navy officer who is given his first command - a rust-bucket submarine with the "crew from hell" - and sent off on war-games, where he bashes both vessel and personnel into gleaming shape. Three splendid old reprobates - Rip Torn, Bruce Dern, Harry Dean Stanton - add pungency. Apart from the gags about a tattooed penis and flatulence in enclosed spaces, this genial yarn might easily have been made in the 1940s, and is none the worse for that. Similarly, Empire Records (12), a kiddy film about a day in the life of a music shop, flirts mildly with sex, drugs and teenage suicide, but is at heart a polite update on those larky Cliff and the Shadows films, or, come to that, on Mickey and Judy doing the show right here in the barn. Even the unremitting soundtrack harks back to earlier times: Dire Straits? Buggles?

Moonlight and Valentino (15) has tragic origins - Ellen Simon, daughter of Neil, was driven to write the Broadway play on which it is based after her husband died in a road accident - but her grief doesn't fully excuse the exhumation of awful old jokes like the one about the supposedly non-English-speaking house-painter (Jon Bon Jovi) who turns out to understand every leering word spoken about his bottom. The semi-autobiographical heroine is Rebecca (Elizabeth Perkins), who teaches the worst poetry class in the history of Western civilisation. We begin with her husband's death, and then enjoy a year of mourning and maundering in the company of Rebecca's friends and family (Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow), mostly articulated in those ping-pong dialogue bouts Ms Simon has inherited from her old man. In case the title prompts expectations of desert ravishments, Valentino is the name of the house-painter's dog.

The only good thing to be said about A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (18) is that it had the decency to post a clear warning sign in its credit sequence: as well as taking the lead role, Martin Lawrence is listed under Director, Story By, Screenplay and Executive Producer. He's a Renaissance incompetent. "I'm caught up in a real-life Fatal Attraction," runs the most self-incriminating line in its numbingly unfunny script; to know more than this would merely vex you needlessly.

After Lawrence's endless vanity piece, Philip Ridley's The Passion of Darkly Noon (18) (surely the title of an early Genesis track?) seems profoundly honourable: it's tosh, and hand-me-down tosh at that, but it's not cynical - there's an earnest intensity to it, all sweat, blood and fire, which could make a real hit with morbid schoolboys. It begins with young Darkly (Brendan Fraser) turning up at a gingerbread house inhabited by Ashley Judd. Never having watched any movies, and thus seeing nothing scary about a stammering religious nutcase who wears barbed wire under his shirt like the bloke in Wise Blood, she invites him in to watch her wearing a sequence of skimpy dresses. Generous helpings of symbolism follow (best when cryptic: the giant silver shoe on the river is rather fetching; shame it's rationalised at the end), and the house burns down very prettily. You will have worked out by now whether or not this is your sort of night on the town.

Screamers (18) is a sci-fi B-movie with a noble pedigree: a screenplay co-written by Dan O'Bannon (of Dark Star immortality) from a short story by the increasingly acknowledged genius Philip K Dick. The latter author might have been guessed from the predominance of Dick's regular idee fixe about identity - the "Screamers" are killing machines which have learned how to take on convincing human forms - but not from much else. Even for cheap genre stuff, it's on the thin side, albeit with a few images which nearly rise to the dignity of "eerie". Peter Weller stars as a hard- bitten space soldier with a penchant for Mozart.

Finally, the refreshing prospect of another Hitchcock re-release: I Confess (1953; PG), with Montgomery Clift at his most clenched and androgynously handsome as the priest suspected of murder but incapable of naming the real killer because of his sacred obligation to the seal of the confessional. It's dour, misanthropic Hitchcock, almost unrelieved by humour, and with shuddersome glimpses of everyday nastiness, all shot with incongruous beauty by Robin Burks. My second little confession of the week is that I do not love it as, no doubt, I should, though it puts everything else on offer this week firmly back in its place.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14

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