THE CRITICS: Flash bangs go up in smoke

CINEMA; DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, BURNT BY THE SUN, BUTTERFLY KISS, SUITE 16
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THE STOICAL smile of Bruce Willis is tested to its limit in Die Hard With a Vengeance (15). That sideways smirk - the limit of Willis's facial repertoire - had, in the first two Die Hards, outfaced terrorist psychopaths, marital angst, and the slings and megablasts of outrageous fortune. Now it has to contend with something still more lethal: a self- destructing script. Never mind the bombs set to explode in primary schools all over New York city - a more horrific carnage is spreading across the screen. As the script blasts itself to bits, we watch the whole Die Hard series go up in flames, like the hotel lobbies and airline jets of the first two films.

Jonathan Hensleigh's script is a miracle of misconception. It misunderstands - or mislays - the secrets of the earlier films' successes. It is as if someone had written a Batman film without exploring the crusader's dark side, or a Superman film which grounded the hero. The exhilaration of Die Hard I and II lay in their fusion of action and claustrophobia. Sprawling special effects exploded in cramped settings. The regard for the unities of time, space and action suggested a collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Aristotle. By contrast, Die Hard III is set all over New York, the action spanning the city - from the subway, to Central Park, to the vault of the Federal Reserve, to the waters of the Hudson - making for a movie that's episodic rather than dramatic. Over-eager to please the eye with new locations and conflagrations, it feels desperate as well as disparate.

The plot is confused. Jeremy Irons plays Simon, a sociopath set on blowing up bits of the city, while leading Willis's NYPD officer John McClane and his reluctant sidekick Samuel L Jackson a sadistic dance. Willis hares from phonebox to phonebox, receiv- ing cryptic clues, which, if solved, will forestall further destruction. (Of course, the needling phone instructions are an old gimmick, more skilfully exploited in thrillers like Dirty Harry and In the Line of Fire.) Simon soon turns out to be the brother of Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman's memorably ruthless and sardonic villain from the first film. At first, Simon seems set on a personal mission of vengeance against McClane, for killing Hans. Later, other motives hie into view, notably a gold-bullion heist. But whereas Rickman used ideology as a front for theft, Simon's motives are muddled.

Alan Rickman's Gruber was one of the best and most imitated blockbuster performances of the last decade. He honed a character out of pure arrogance. Irons's Simon, like so many villains before him, is a pale shadow of Rickman. He has a much lamer script to work with. But there is also a feeling of bad faith, as if he were condescending to the role, or his heart was simply not in it. Where Rickman's class converted into conceit, Irons's sophistication seems at sea, bordering on the effete. You are likely to see more genuine malevolence in a pantomime.

Director John McTiernan made his name with Predator and Die Hard. He seemed then the consummate technician of mayhem. Here he shows he can still blow up a building with the best of them - in one sequence a subway bomb sends a train reeling across the platform. But his editing has lost its edge. Special effects seem cumbersomely inserted, instead of organic. The piece de resistance is a cab ride which adds a wild new spin to driving through Central Park. The taxi speeds through the shrubbery and scatters strollers. A thrilling idea, but the shot selection - cutting between stunt work and other footage - is mechanical. That the sequence belongs in a Bond film is symptomatic of the movie's confusion, its lurches between realism and fantasy, heroism and super-heroism.

I found myself maddeningly distracted throughout the first half of the film- by the music. Just where did that incongruously jaunty tune that overlaid the most ominous scenes come from? Finally, I got it. Bruce Willis saves New York to the strains of "The Runaway Train". It seems apt for a trilogy that has scaled heights, but is now grinding to a halt. Even the Die Hardest of fans should accept that the series has at last run out of steam.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, and Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun (15), winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film - thereby dignifying that dubious distinction. This ominous comedy opens like Chekhov and closes like a lament by Mandelstam for Russian totalitarianism. After a brief prologue in which we see a young man survive a round of Russian roulette, we shift to the rural dacha of a retired colonel in the Russian army (played with aristocratic verve by Mikhalkov himself). It is the middle of a long, hot summer, and the balmy days are filled by the colonel's antique relations with quotations from Pushkin, reminiscence and squabbling. "You are like Switzerland," an old woman upbraids her spouse, "well-fed and apathetic."

Things are stirred up by the arrival of the young survivor of the Russian roulette (Oleg Menchikov), who returns to the house where he was once the lover of the colonel's beautiful, younger wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite). He blasts through the sedate old place, with songs at the piano, games and anecdotes - a blizzard of energy. And yet he casts a chill too, turning out to be a Stalinist spy, on a mission to turn in the colonel. Menchikov gives a performance as sleek as his black hair: the consummate spy, insidiously charming and blithely conscienceless. We see him tricking Maroussia, by hiding underwater after diving into a lake. The original hollow man, he is a Party hack hiding behind party games. To him life is a test of endurance and one-upmanship - in no sense a moral pursuit.

Burnt by the Sun has a superb ensemble cast. But one performance shines brighter than all the others. Nadia Mikhalkov, the director's eight-year- old daughter, plays his daughter in the film, skipping, dancing, making a mouth like a platypus, and protesting at being saddled with childish things. She has an instinctive grace and intelligence, a face full of innocent coquetry, and appraising dark eyes, which twinkle with merriment and humanity. The camera is in love with her - and so is her father. The feeling is mutual: she rubs her chin on his salty moustache, and plays an enchanting game involving long holdings of the breath and an odd whistling sound ("I'm little, so I get two goes"). Like all the greatest love affairs, theirs is doomed.

Burnt by the Sun is so exuberantly detailed and densely textured that it repays viewing more than once. It's a real film in a season of blockbuster impostors. Bask in its radiant humour and allow yourself to be scorched by its searing power.

Rounding off the week, a couple of disappointing British psycho-sexual dramas. In Butterfly Kiss (18), Amanda Plummer plays a murderous down- and-out who seduces Saskia Reeves's dippy petrol-station check-out girl. Michael Winterbottom shoots the film in a grey palette of hard- shoulder bleakness. His rapid editing, which seemed so refreshing in the Roddy Doyle BBC2 series Family, here comes over as a flashy distraction. The performances strive for an authentic forlornness, but Winterbottom might have fared better with unknowns, a la Ken Loach.

In Suite 16 (18), Pete Postlethwaite plays a paraplegic, who lives out his erotic fantasies through a stud, whom he puts up in his hotel suite and watches having sex on closed-circuit television. A comic exploration of the contributions of mind and body to desire is stymied by a script that's more banal than Bunuel.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.

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