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Cinema / Och aye, such noble derring-do!

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 20 May 1995 23:02 BST

EARLY on in Michael Caton-Jones's Rob Roy (15), Tim Roth's vicious English dandy, Archibald Cunningham, lies abed, sleeping the sleep of the unjust. A besotted servant girl, whom Cunningham has taken advantage of, tries to slip out of his chamber, but is intercepted by Cunningham's factor (Brian Cox). As the girl leaves, Cox feels beneath her skirt. He then waves his hand over his master's slumbering nose: "A wee whiff of quim in the morning, Mr Cunningham, Sir. Just the thing to clear your head." Soon Cox is again harping on about bodily fluids, speculating about the contents of his master's chamber pot: "It's almost pure spirit, or I'm no judge of a pot of piss." By now those expecting a traditional Hollywood Scotch epic - shortbread-tin cinema - will have been disabused. This is no Brigadoon. It is more like Brigadon't.

The film tells a legendary 18th-century story, but unlike, say, Legends of the Fall, it never floats away into myth. In the first scene we see Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) and his friend McDonald (Eric Stolz) kneeling on the Highland grass, picking over the ground for enemy tracks. The whole movie is seasoned by the salt of the earth. If the language can be basic, so is the struggle. Rob's clan are being ravaged by the winter. He borrows money from the reactionary Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt). But, owing to betrayal within the clan, and the skulduggery of Montrose's ally Cunningham, the money never reaches Rob. Rob becomes an outlaw, the target for Montrose's vengeance, and for Cunningham's own psychotic brand of enmity. Only drawn swords at 10 paces will resolve it.

The first point to make about Alan Sharp's script is that it travesties history, bearing only the flimsiest resemblance to the facts of Rob's life, and importing a great deal of sensationalism (such as the rape of Rob's wife by Cunningham). The second point is that it's one of the best screenplays of the last decade. Sharp, who is returning to his roots, after scripting Hollywood classics such as Ulzana's Raid and Night Moves, has married the narrative complexity of the classic Western and film noir, to an earthy Scottish naturalism. The result is not so much like Walter Scott (whose novel Rob Roy barely dealt with the hero) as James Boswell, when in tumultuous mood, with the whoring rage upon him.

Sharp can also rise to romanticism, as when Rob's wife (Jessica Lange) talks of her feelings for her husband: "And though I love his honour, it is but a moon-cast shadow to the love I bear him." Silly but soaring, this sort of rhetoric fulfils the film's swashbuckler brief, but also clarifies its key theme - that of honour. Rob defines honour, to his children, tellingly, as "a man's gift to himself". In other words, it is a glorious male self-indulgence, something that the film acknowledges in its blend of cruelty and derring-do. Neeson, never better than here (even if he is about a foot taller than the historical Rob), gets that balance too, with a hint of masochism behind his proud glare. He even brings conviction to his love scenes with Jessica Lange, who looks too old and too Nordic for Rob's beloved Mary McGregor.

Hardly a week goes by without us seeing Tim Roth duffing up some unfortunate or other. His fist-work is becoming more familiar than Frank Bruno's. Here we see him punching Mary, with that familiar gleeful, concentrated venom, and kicking her husband's face into a patchwork of scars. But what makes this monster such an impressive addition to Roth's menagerie, is the veneer of elegance under which the bestiality lurks. Roth makes Cunningham's every gesture ornate with dandyish self-love, whether he is elaborately bowing or sword-fighting. Under his wig of flowing dark curls, his face is narrow yet pampered, with teased-out eye-brows as thin and arch as his smirking lips. He is the most frightening fop you ever laid eyes on.

With his blazing, flashy talent, Glasgow-born director Michael Caton- Jones is something like the British equivalent of Michael Mann, whose Last of the Mohicans had many of the same virtues as Rob Roy. Caton-Jones draws bold and sensitive performances out of his cast, and provides breath- taking images that don't detract from the drama. His palette is dark and depressed, painting a fittingly overcast Scottish Highlands. But with it he conjures moments of ominous beauty such as the arrival of Cunningham's fleet, out of the mist, as Lange kneels by the waters. Caton-Jones covers the terrain, whose mixture of lushness and cragginess reflects the film, with the mastery of a John Ford.

After the havoc that Hollywood has wreaked upon Scottish history and literature (especially Stevenson), it is a pleasure to watch a movie which has a real feel for the country. Rob Roy closes with a dedication "to the memories of Alexander Mackendrick and Jock Stein", respectively Scotland's greatest ever film director and football manager. In its fierce pride and vision, Rob Roy is worthy of them.

Don Juan De Marco (15) is a featherlight comedy presided over by two heavyweight actors. Johnny Depp plays a boy from Brooklyn, who claims he is Don Juan, legendary lover of more than 12,000 women - and has the cape and mask to prove it. Marlon Brando is the psychiatrist assigned to cure the delusion, but slowly seduced by its passion and ingenuity. As the day of the legal decision about the boy's future - asylum or freedom - approaches, Brando's shrink, nearing his own retirement, becomes revivified, as if by reflected romance. His moribund marriage (to Faye Dunaway) also blossoms after a long hibernation.

It is hard to think of another actor who could bring off Don Juan De Marco, as Johnny Depp has. With his voice like a caress and eyes that gently preen, he is entirely believable as a consummate seducer, who yet remains sweet and sincere, devoid of sleaze - the essence of romance. He meets confrontation with the incredulous real world with charm and generosity, and a naivety which writer-director Jeremy Leven's script makes much understated humour out of.

Marlon Brando, on the other hand, is barely believable as any ordinary person these days. His gigantic girth and fabled history both render him, quite literally, extraordinary. With his strange corn-coloured hair and still-handsome profile, he has the look of a Roman emperor. His mighty head ought to be atop a toga or stamped on a coin, not crouching over a desk. He has moments of rueful grandeur and is always game, but he looks ill at ease striving for the movie's key-note tweeness. And he also brings an awkward unacknowledged irony to a film whose message is that we should live out our fantasies. Surely Brando is the living, tragic embodiment of that philosophy, his physique and his family ruined by over-indulgence.

Street Fighter (12) is a noisy, brainless farrago, based on a computer game, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and a hopeless Kylie Minogue. It assaults the ears and the intellect.

Cinema details: Review, page 74

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