Box Office Heat

Up until now Hollywood has enjoyed a remarkably prosperous summer. Seven movies have already broken the $100 million barrier. No surprise at the top--it's that darn Skywalker boy--but who would have guessed the numbers for "The Blair Witch Project," the Mini-Me of horror movies? But the dog days of August, packed to the bursting point with new product, may bring a reality check: probably only a few can survive such a crowded showdown. Here's four to start off summer's last hurrah.

Runaway Bride

The problem with "runaway Bride" isn't the radiant Julia Roberts, whose star wattage has rarely burned so brightly. The problem isn't Richard Gere, who is loose, self-effacing and unusually charming. No one, certainly, can deny their chemistry: almost 10 years after "Pretty Woman," it's still volatile and plain to see. So why does "Runaway Bride" feel so off? Why does it produce such halfhearted laughter?

This is the sort of Hollywood tale in which everything seems to have been decided by committee. Roberts is Maggie, a superskittish small-town girl who has abandoned three prospective grooms at the altar. Gere is Ike, a cynical, divorced, rather misogynistic New York reporter who comes to town to write about her on the eve of her fourth wedding, to a local gym teacher (Christopher Meloni). He wants vindication: his first piece on this runaway bride, riddled with untruths, cost him his job at USA Today. Maggie, who runs a hardware store (and, of course, designs trendy industrial lamps on the side!), wants retribution herself for his slanderous column. One guess who turns out to be groom No. 4.

Director Garry Marshall's romantic comedy has the earmarks of a project that has been fussed over by too many hands for too many years. (Beware any movie that lists 11 producers.) It's not just that the movie is formulaic; it's disingenuous. While it serves up platitudes about self-knowledge, it doesn't have a clue who these two damaged, and damaging, characters really are. It relies on Roberts's smile to erase all misgivings. But all the stardust in the world can't disguise the fact that this is more package than picture.

Deep Blue Sea

It doesn't really matter if you think Renny Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea" is totally preposterous. It will scare you anyway. It makes surprisingly little difference if the laughter it provokes means the audience is laughing at it, with it, or simply because it needs relief from the tension. This highly unlikely story about genetically enhanced sharks that terrorize the scientists who created them is one summer movie that delivers exactly what it promises: nonstop popcorn thrills. In the season of "Lake Placid" and "The Haunting," that's nothing to sneeze at.

The setting is a floating lab somewhere in the Atlantic that is quickly destroyed by a timely tropical storm. The unlucky team of researchers (including Saffron Burrows as a chilly British scientist, Samuel L. Jackson as the project's CEO, Thomas Jane as a "shark wrangler" and LL Cool J as an intrepid chef) is trapped in submerged, flooding chambers. If the ocean doesn't swallow them a la "Titanic," the brainy mako sharks will have them for lunch.

Harlin ("Die Hard 2," "Cliffhanger") has some wicked fun undermining our expectations. In the movie's most startling moment, one of the main characters is suddenly, unexpectedly swallowed whole. This drew applause from the preview audience not because they hated the victim, but because they were happy to be so expertly faked out. "Deep Blue Sea" gives good rush--earning its stripes as one terrific junk movie.

The Thomas Crown Affair

The heist that set the original 1968 "The Thomas Crown Affair" in motion was a $3 million robbery of a Boston bank masterminded by Brahmin millionaire Steve McQueen. How quaint that amount now seems. The new Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) is a self-made billionaire who oversees the elaborate theft of a Monet worth $100 million from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. A man who has never let anyone get close to him, a man so decadent he can afford to wreck a catamaran just for the thrill of it, Crown finally meets his match in the savvy, chic insurance investigator Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), who instantly suspects him. He knows she knows he's the culprit, and she knows he intends to seduce her. What neither of these cutthroat charmers expects is to fall in love.

The tale was, and is, a gold-plated fantasy of conspicuous consumption, and the only way to play it is to revel shamelessly in the erotica of luxury. Which is precisely what director John McTiernan does in his slick, gaudily suave guilty pleasure of a movie, which is filled to the brim with private planes, Caribbean retreats, overdone hairdos and marathon couplings on marble stairways that would leave ordinary mortals black and blue. The emphasis has been changed from larceny to love, and the overt sexuality turned up a notch. Russo has to shed a lot more clothing than Faye Dunaway did; given some of the odd outfits she's got to wear, this was probably a relief. But it's nice to see a Hollywood movie that appreciates a mature female body for a change. And nice to see that "The Thomas Crown Affair" has survived its glossy, glam makeover so well.

The Iron Giant

This beguiling animated feature is set in the paranoid 1950s. Even in the small Maine town where 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes lives, the shadow of the A-bomb hovers, and cold-war rumors about Russian espionage abound. Imagine, then, what fears are unleashed when Hogarth finds, and befriends, a 50-foot giant robot that feeds on metal. With the help of his beatnik artist friend Dean, Hogarth tries to hide his giant metallic playmate--especially from the suspicious eyes of a commie-obsessed federal agent. But it's only so long before the robot is forced to unleash its lethal powers to defend itself.

This is not exactly standard children's fare, but kids (and their parents) should be smitten by its wit and wisdom. Loosely based on poet Ted Hughes's book "The Iron Man," it has been turned by writer-director Brad Bird into a multilevel fable about violence, free will, the continuity of life and--more topically--gun control. At once simple and sophisticated, Bird's "Iron Giant" makes it clear that Disney isn't the only animation game in town.

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