The Critics: John and Nic get right off their faces

CINEMA

Hong Kong action directors like John Woo are reinventing the Hollywood product as a variation on the arcade game - the sort of shoot-'em- up you see frustrated suitboys playing in their one daylight hour away from the office. Lads' glossies and serious film journals alike have gone goosepimply for Face/Off (18), Woo's biggest, flashiest, starriest outing to date. But rather than being a glimpse into the future, the film feels like the action thriller's last gasp. Massively overlong and monstrously boring, it spends 138 minutes lumbering from violence to mawkish sentiment, bloated by a love for its own foolishness.

A poverty-row plot has good-but-grouchy cop John Travolta taking on the identity of bad-but-mad terrorist Nicolas Cage in order to extract intelligence from his co-conspirators. The process involves making an incision around Travolta's face, then clamping on a transparent mould, like the packing from an Easter egg. With this, it's possible for top boffin Dr Walsh (Colm Feore) to peel off the Travolta visage intact, as though it was custard- skin, or a very large scab.

The doctor's first problem is the physical disparity between his two subjects. Though Cage cuts a lean strip of sinew, Travolta is scowly, jowly and - thanks to a commendable disregard for Californian body fascism - blessed with the prodigious love-handles of a man unafraid of the menu at Dunkin' Donuts. We hear the surgeon explain that his flab isn't a problem, but we don't see him spooning lard into Nic Cage's buttocks. (Otherwise, I suppose, they would've called the film Arse/Off). We're also warned that "even a sharp sneeze" could dislodge the microchip implant that ensures their voices co-ordinate with their new faces - although in cheerful disregard for consistency, Woo allows mug to match modulation after every cataclysm of flying glass and combusting petrol.

Face/Off's exchange of identities is a cliche with potential, but interesting possibilities are sidestepped in order to provide room for Travolta and Cage to camp up each other's worst acting mannerisms. And for a movie about two men who get inside each other's bodies, there's a disappointing lack of sexual chemistry between the leads. Instead, Woo serves up interminable action sequences (staffed by some rather poor stunt doubles) and an increasingly ludicrous series of stand-offs that take cliche into previously unexplored realms of obviousness. It might be too early to write its obituary quite yet, but the imaginative atrophy of Face/Off suggests that the action thriller hasn't got much creative life left in it. Its corpse, however, may stagger on for some time to come.

There's more westernised Hong Kong action in Maximum Risk (18), a Ringo Lam flick in which Jean-Claude Van Damme stretches himself by taking on two roles. Clothes are the main key to telling them apart. Mikhail - a Russian gangster who's dead by the end of the first reel - opts for the chunky gold of Frank Butcher chic, whereas his twin Alain is Man at C&A topped with the hennaed bouffant of an ageing cottager. "Sometimes I yearn for our bachelor days in the army," says his buddy Sebastien (Jean- Hughes Anglade), before Jean-Claude jets off to Little Odessa to moon over his dead twin's abandoned balalaika. Soon, we're knee-deep in vaguely racist skulduggery as Lam takes the action to a Russian bath-house in New York. You know the customers are Russians because one has the hammer and sickle tattooed on his chest, and there's some old geezer playing the accordion in the nude. And, with sweaty homoerotics not quite explicit enough to alienate Pub Man, the first kickboxer of cinema strips to his loincloth and goes down on the tiles with a butch blond wrestler. In case this brings back too many memories of Van Damme's early days in gay soft porn, Lam later has him mount the inconspicuously talented Natasha Henstridge over a hotel sink. There's a hero who knows how to show a girl a good time.

Back in the real world, Michael Verhoeven returns to the themes of his The Nasty Girl with an adaptation of George Tabori's play My Mother's Courage (12). Pauline Collins stars as Elsa Tabori, the playwright's mother, a Hungarian Jew herded from the streets of Budapest on to a train bound for Auschwitz. Tabori himself plays Chorus, stopping the action to receive a birthday cake from the cast, or to admonish a gang of Magyar secret policemen. These bursts of metatextuality both supply a rich gallows humour and help the film bind its anecdote of the Holocaust to a set of firmly contemporary images. It works, and it's a world away from the ersatz sentimentality of Schindler's List.

Another maternal tribute is offered by Sandrine Veysset's Will it Snow for Christmas? (12), a frosty, but kindly fable shot in a rural Provence that Mayle-mad weekenders wouldn't recognise if it collided with their 2CV. Veysset's film focuses on the agricultural toils of an unnamed mother (Dominique Raymond) and her seven illegitimate children. Life is tough, as her brood's farmer father (Daniel Duval) exploits them as live-in labourers, has a cosily legitimate wife and family elsewhere. Exploring this scenario with a documentary eye, Veysset's film is simple and affecting, and she illustrates the rural processes that structure her characters' existence with the detail of a Holman Hunt or Thomas Hardy. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles terms, this family's life is all Flintcomb Ash and no Talbothays, but Veysset declines to melodramatise their rural poverty, instead suggesting something that's too ambiguous to sit in easy judgement upon. A small, quiet, unsentimental achievement.

Simon Moore's Up on the Roof (15) relates three decades of personal and professional progress in the lives of five Hull University graduates who have little in common but their love of a capella harmony and their presence in a contrived and vacuous script. This is a film that thinks that if its characters launch into a Donna Summer medley, nobody will notice the shallowness of the screenwriting. It's a misapprehension, and there is little the talented, sparky cast can do to conceal the movie's lack of emotional depth. We are, for instance, asked to sympathise with the breakdown of a relationship between children's TV presenter Tim (Billy Carter) and sculptress Bryony (Amy Robbins) without ever being given evidence that it existed in the first place. And the malcontented hero, Scott (Adrian Lester), is even sketchier. Only Daniel Ryan's Keith, the film's wisecrack dispenser, manages to avoid this hollowness - largely because we're never asked to believe in his character's inner life.

Karoly Makk's film of Dostoevsky's The Gambler (15) frames its tale with the narrative of its production: the writer (reliable ubercurmudgeon Michael Gambon) and his stenographer (a fresh, spiky Jodhi May) conspire to meet a near-impossible deadline, with all Fyodor's future copyrights at stake if they fail to deliver. As Dostoevsky spins his story of profit and loss on the Baden-Baden roulette tables, Makk is free to play with the similarities between gambling, fiction-writing and film-making. Scenes fade to nothing as suddenly and frequently as his characters' hopes; jerky jump-cuts lend an air of cranked-up urgency. Unfortunately, he's unable to decide which narrative element is his main plot and which his sub-plot, and it's only in the last reel that biopic finally wins out over literary adaptation. This makes for a film curiously uncomfortable with its own structure, and it's left to the actors to dispel this unease. Gambon and May are a strong, safe bet for the biographical strand, but in the fictional one, only Luise Rainer's gambling-mad grandmother comes up trumps. An octogenarian double Oscar-winner who hasn't made a film since 1943, Rainer gives a performance of brilliant oddness, like a infinitely crumped paper bag with a 100-watt bulb inside it. Suddenly, 87 seems an excellent age for a comeback.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

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