Very Dangerous Liaisons

I can't think of another movie that mixes the tragic, the playful and the perverse in quite the delicious way _B_The Crying Game_b_ does. Neil Jordan, the Irish novelist, screenwriter and director who made "The Company of Wolves," "Mona Lisa" and the wonderful, little-seen "The Miracle," likes to go out on a limb. But nothing compares to the tonal tightrope walk of "The Crying Game," which seems to contain four movies for the price of one, each full of surprises. It starts as if it were going to be an IRA thriller, takes a turn toward romance and, by the time it reaches its unpredictably buoyant conclusion, pulls the rug and the floor out from under your feet. What's so satisfying about these mind-popping maneuvers is that they're never cheap tricks: Jordan's sleight of hand is always in the service of his theme, an investigation of the mysteries of human nature. As a melodrama, a Hitchcockian thriller or a wry comedy, this is a study of the notion of "character"--what constitutes moral virtue.

The hero is a soft-spoken IRA terrorist named Fergus (Stephen Rea), who participates in the kidnapping of a political hostage, the black British soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker). Assigned to guard the man he may have to kill, Fergus's innately kind nature gets him in trouble with his more fanatical colleagues (Miranda Richardson and Adrian Dunbar). A bond develops between prisoner and captor that threatens Fergus's political priorities. This part of the story ends in horror (though not the way we expect), and Fergus is forced to flee Ireland for London. There he takes a construction job, changes his name and finds Jody's hairdresser girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson), whom he had promised to look in on should anything happen to the soldier.

A teasing, seductive intimacy immediately develops. Fergus is drawn to the alluring Dil, a part-time chanteuse at the local bar, with a complicated mix of guilt, lust and affection. Eager to escape his past, but haunted by it, he doesn't reveal to Dil his relationship to her former lover. But his IRA past comes calling nonetheless, threatening Dil and the man he's become. When he springs into action, this diffident hero discovers within himself his true, chivalric nature.

Rea, who has the long face of a forlorn pixie, isn't an obvious leading man; his gentle, ironic charisma creeps up on you, and makes his particular form of heroism all the more touching. Davidson, who hasn't acted before, is startlingly good as a woman ready to give all for love, and Whitaker, whose spirit hangs over their affair and seems to guide it, is terrific as the affable, cricket-loving victim. It's impossible to discuss the richness of Jordan's masterfully constructed work without spoiling its deceptions and disguises. When it's over, you play the movie back in your mind, seeing everything in a fresh light. If the test of a good movie is how it makes an audience feel when the lights come up, "The Crying Game" is a very good movie indeed. It leaves one giddy.

Someone is trying to kill pop diva Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston). The man hired to protect her is ex-Secret Service agent Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner), state-of-the-art bodyguard. At first, Rachel doesn't know the extent of the danger she's in. Surrounded in her lavish Beverly Hills palazzo by family and flunkies who keep the truth from her, the temperamental superstar resents Frank's intrusions on her lifestyle. They bicker. Then they sleep together. Then he pulls away, knowing that he can't maintain his strict professional standards if his heart is involved.

Directed in a jumpy, off-balance style by Mick Jackson from a Lawrence ("Grand Canyon") Kasdan script written ages ago and revised, "The Bodyguard" is a wildly uneven romantic thriller. Costner is the best thing in it, his wary, blunt cool niftily balanced by self-effacing humor. But for the movie to transcend its formulaic soul, Rachel needs to be a far more alluring, complex figure than Houston, a novice at acting, can pull off. She's in her element when she performs, but she doesn't know how to build a character. Her fits and mood swings seem arbitrary, driven only by movie convention. Still, if you can overlook the obvious flaws--a bumpy beginning, a villain whose motive is both too obvious and hard to swallow--"The Bodyguard" has its flashy, shallow pleasures. There's some wit in Kasdan's script, and plenty of dread in the big Oscar-ceremony climax (reminiscent of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"). When it works, it's like watching a paranoid edition of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

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