Cantona stars with a talking monkey

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IN A FILM which is opening across France on Wednesday there is an early scene in which a familiar, straight-backed figure - the hero of the movie - walks down a Mexican backstreet.

A football rolls away from a group of street urchins, directly to the hero's feet. No male person can resist kicking a football. Except Eric Cantona. He steps over the ball and walks on.

The film, called Mookie, is the first in which the former footballer and sardine philosopher has had a starring role since he walked out on Manchester United to start a new career as an actor 18 months ago.

The scene with the ball is the director's way of saying "forget Eric the footballer, welcome Eric the actor".

First reviews of the film in the French press - which generally likes to make fun of Cantona - have been good. "You have to admit, he does it pretty well," Carlos Gomez wrote in Le Journal du Dimanche.

Cantona also plays a cameo role, as a French count, in the successful British film Elizabeth.

He had a supporting part, while still employed as a footballer, in the French film Le Bonheur est dans le Pre.

Mookie is, however, the launch of Cantona's acting career proper. He plays an itinerant French boxer, travelling through small towns in Mexico, one of whose companions is a talking monkey (the Mookie of the title). The director is Herve Palud, a successful maker of comic and whimsical films, including Un Indien dans la Ville.

Cantona's role is scarcely demanding. He plays a sportsman from Marseilles with intellectual and philosophical aspirations and a capacity for dry self-parody.

During the making of the film on location in Mexico the boxer who was brought in as Cantona's sparring partner for the fight scenes complained that the ex-footballer was hitting him too hard. To which Cantona replied, in effect: "He hit me first."

Mookie is expected to appear, in dubbed and sub-titled versions, in British cinemas in the middle of next year.