Reign of Fire<br></br>The Guru<br></br>Tortilla Soup<br></br>Black Knight

Anthony Quinn
Friday 23 August 2002 00:00 BST

The future is black. The future is orange. Such is the postapocalyptic landscape envisaged in Reign of Fire, where earth, dateline 2020, has been scorched to cinders by fire-breathing dragons. Only small pockets of human resistance remain, like the medieval fortress in the wilds of Northumbria that's home to a ragtag bunch of survivors, most of them children. Their lord and protector is Quinn (Christian Bale), who, as a 12-year-old, saw his mother incinerated in the first-ever dragon attack and is now determined to play St George on the planet's behalf: "Only one species is getting out of this alive," he vows. Enter as his ally a preposterously bulked-up Matthew McConaughey as Van Zan, gimlet-eyed, shaven-headed and wielding the sort of fighting technology and can-do only the Americans (duh) can provide.

The director, Rob Bowman, and his production designer Wolf Kroeger give the film an apocalyptically grungy look, from the earthlings' charity-shop duds to the ashen junkyard that is modern London (the winged monsters have nested in the ruined shell of the Houses of Parliament – perhaps a comment on the previous incumbents...). Effects-wise, the dragons themselves look quite scary when silhouetted against the sky, less so when flame-grilling humans in close-up; the real smouldering goes on down below, where Bale and McConaughey, in matching shaggy beards, seem to be competing over which of them can stare the hardest. Their supercharged machismo is as daft as you might expect, but for all its silliness, Reign of Fire never bores, and may actually appeal to your inner twelve-year-old.

Coasting on Bollywood's current wave of popularity, The Guru plays out a sweet if wholly predictable comedy of imposture. Jimi Mistry plays Ramu, an Indian dance instructor who comes to New York with hopes of making it big on Broadway – almost inevitably, his first job is on a porn film where "making it big" proves literally beyond him. He has better luck when called upon to impersonate a guru at an upper-crust Manhattan soirée, improvising his own version of the Macarena, and beguiling the hostess's New Age-crazed daughter (Marisa Tomei). Suddenly, he's a celebrated fount of erotic wisdom, a supply he keeps topping up from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo spouted by his porn-star friend Sharonna (Heather Graham), whose sacred text is not the Karma Sutra but Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are". Welcome to the land of opportunism.

Tracey Jackson's four-square screenplay is lifted by the occasional tart witticism. I particularly liked this exchange: "How's your mother?" "Remarkably lifelike." In the title role, Jimi Mistry is amiability itself, while Heather Graham, putting the career catastrophe of Killing Me Softly behind her, plays the ingénue porn-kitten as disarmingly as she did in Boogie Nights. (I wonder if casting directors know something about her that we don't...) The film lightly sends up the way self-discovery can issue from deception, even self- deception, and cleverly covers Eastern and Western markets with its song-and-dance numbers. On the downside, its feel-good romantic patterning is just a touch too ingratiating for my palate. And why is it that every Working Title comedy seems to end with a last-minute dash to an airport or church for one of those redemptive clinches?

Maria Ripoll's Tortilla Soup transposes Ang Lee's 1995 film Eat Drink Man Woman to West Coast America and ends up something of a dog's dinner. Hector Elizondo plays the widowed paterfamilias and chef who still cooks dinner for his three daughters – the pious schoolteacher Leticia (Elizabeth Peña), the ambitious exec who secretly wants to cook (Jacqueline Obradors), and a teenage spitfire (Tamara Mello) who thinks that everyone ignores her. (She's such a pain you can understand why.) The film cuts between the family's various romantic complications – there's a lively cameo by Raquel Welch as a matron who sets her cap at Elizondo – and frequent glimpses of Dad preparing his top-notch nosh, though this latter trope isn't integrated in the way of other movies such as Babette's Feast or Big Night, in which food functions as a metaphor. This is comedy drama that wants to celebrate the communion of food but hasn't the wit to surprise our jaded palates. "Bland" would be the kindest word for it.

I'll say this for Martin Lawrence, he is consistent: every film he stars in is terrible. Black Knight is his latest, a fish-out-of-water comedy in which he plays a streetwise brother from LA who falls into a medieval theme-park's moat and emerges to find himself in 14th-century England. (The model is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.) Despite wearing an emerald-green football shirt and speaking "an unusual tongue", he somehow manages to pass himself off as a court jester, which is ironic given that Lawrence can barely raise a laugh from an audience that knows what he's talking about.

There's a mildly diverting musical number in which he leads a medieval reworking of Sly's "Dance to the Music", but the rest of the time, his schtick falls hopelessly flat and merely reminds us how much funnier Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy would have been in the part.

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