FILM / Beware the enemy in a smart suit

Robin Buss
Saturday 17 September 1994 23:02

RELUCTANT hero Jack Ryan is back, unexpectedly promoted to take over from his ailing chief as Acting Deputy Director of the CIA. This means a lovely office - to complement his lovely wife and two near-invisible children - and the opportunity to be photographed with the President. So why does he look so sour? In Patriot Games, Harrison Ford wore the expression of a man with an early case of piles - but in Clear and Present Danger (12), it has intensified to a twisted glare of entrenched disgruntlement.

He does have some cause. In this, as in his other movies, Ford plays a professional man with a good background and a family like a Fifties television commercial. He doesn't ask the President to send him to Colombia to sort out a drugs cartel; and when the opposition lures his motorcade down a Bogota side-street and starts pounding it with a bazooka, his look of pained indignation is probably justified. After all, he never claimed to be Schwarzenegger or Stallone. But the scowl persists even after fate and his own exceptional presence of mind have allowed him to escape from the ambush and get safely home. Truly, something is amiss in Jack Ryan's world.

What he could have is a severe case of post-Cold War malaise. The Communist enemy was often disguised (whether as a liberal American or a zombie from Planet X), but at least you knew what he stood for: 'You had a job that you thought made a difference, that you thought was honourable,' Ryan's dying boss (James Earl Jones) tells him. 'Then you see this . . .' And what you see is an enemy who runs an international corporation, wears a suit and believes in the profit motive. He could be a lifelong friend of the President. Why, he could even be the President himself. The enemy's ideology is the capitalist one, the American Way; the enemy's ideology is your own. The danger is present, but far from clear.

To simplify, for an audience which may have been unsure where it stood on arms for Iran, the real baddie - the one for whom a quick bullet in the last reel will not be enough - used to work for Cuban intelligence. Now he serves a drug baron, who jokes: 'Castro didn't pay you what I do.' Everyone's changing sides, running private armies, denying responsibilities. Only Jack Ryan stands grimly by the flag, the bazookas blazing away around him and even his close associates proving a right pain in the ass. Perhaps he also knows he's made much better movies than this - movies which gave him an opportunity to show he can do more than just perform his own stunts.

In the end, you feel that Clear and Present Danger is trying to have too much of a good thing: a central character who acts like Rambo, but who only believes in violence as a last resort, defending a nation that is worth saving, despite corruption that goes right to the top. This is a movie with its guts in a different place from its head.

Alain Resnais's diptych, Smoking (PG) and No Smoking (PG), arrives with an impressive string of prizes. These are adaptations from eight interconnecting plays by Alan Ayckbourn, which establish the relationships between a Yorkshire schoolmaster, his best friend, their wives, the maid and the school caretaker; offer possible courses of action for these characters; then explore the outcomes of some alternatives. The alternatives usually involve an attempt at escape, but the outcome is seldom better, and may be worse. Toby and Celia Teasdale, Miles and Rowena Coombes, Lionel Hepplewick and Sylvie Bell are trapped in a universe of strictly limited options.

This may be one reason why, instead of trying to release Ayckbourn's plays from the confines of the stage, Resnais has decided to emphasise their theatricality, with studiously artificial sets and lighting (much as he did in his 1986 film, Melo). He has even kept the device of using a two-person cast: Sabine Azema plays all three major, and two minor, female characters; Pierre Arditi is Toby, Miles, Lionel and also, briefly, Lionel's father, the village poet. On the stage, this requires the actors to collaborate with the author in an ingenious succession of quick changes and voices off, a tour de force that engages the sympathy and admiration of the audience. On film, where the switches require no ingenuity, the whole point is lost.

And Resnais needs all the sympathy he can get, given that the two pieces last altogether nearly five hours. For a British audience, the gentle humour is further underlined by the stylised Yorkshire setting and stereotypical characters of Madame Tisdele, Monsieur Epellevique and the rest, speaking in French dialogues that are supposed to reflect their uptight English manners. Azema, in particular, is outstanding as the neurotic Celia (whose decision to take or leave a cigarette gives the films their titles), as her light-hearted maid and as the promiscuous Rowena. After a while, the effect is hypnotic, like one of those Fifties French nouveaux romans in which the characters recount the same actions with slight variations, obsessively, over and over. After all, Resnais was the director of Marguerite Duras's Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Alain Robbe- Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and he has remained impressively faithful to the spirit of those times.

The spirit of 1976 is recalled in Richard Linklater's teenage movie, Dazed and Confused (18), set on the last day of high school somewhere in Middle America. Next year's freshers are subjected to painful and humiliating initiation rituals, the school's athletes have to decide whether to sign a pledge against alcohol and drugs, someone is organising a party and Alice Cooper sings 'School's Out'. The only adults to venture beyond their front doors, apart from the school's three football coaches, are a mother armed with a shotgun and a man with a pistol whose mailbox has been destroyed in a fit of high spirits - in case we thought that drugs and alcohol were serious social problems. They do explain the '18' certificate: these kids are mostly too bombed-out for sex. The film has some enjoyable moments and would like to be American Graffiti, but seems to know that it isn't: as one of the characters observes, the Seventies were simply a less interesting decade.

Cinema details: Review, page 90.

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