Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, Robert Duvall

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel about sin in 17th-century Boston is served up here in a form so simplistic, so Hollywood, it wouldn't suffice even as Cliff Notes. It's more like Cliff Concepts: Meet Hester Prynne. She's sexy, she's a Puritan, and she's about to get in one devil of a mess. The Killing Fields director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart seem to have gotten it into their heads that Hawthorne based his 1850 book on the 1993 movie The Piano. You have the same headstrong heroine in a repressive pioneer community, an emotionally tormented lover on speaking terms with the natives and a husband driven loony with jealousy.

There's no piano.

As the heroine forced to wear an "A" for adultery after her secret affair with Reverend Dimmesdale produces a child, Moore does an old-fashioned star turn, almost blissfully unconcerned with acting. She simply sails into view, got up in more black lace than a Velázquez portrait. Oldman, first seen as a naked backside swimming in a lake, is okay as the guilt-ridden Dimmesdale, but he and Moore display no chemistry.

The one thing to recommend is Robert Duvall as Hester's husband, who turns up after having been held captive by the Algonquins. In a laughable scene in the Indian camp, Duvall does a demented dance resembling the lambada while carrying a deer carcass on his head. But even so, it's a great, creepy portrayal of a man corroded by lust, righteousness and jealousy. The movie should be abridged and reissued as Mr. Prynne. (R)

Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis

Los Angeles, a few days shy of the millennium, has become a gang-infested, racially explosive battle zone where the police are deployed in armored tanks. In the midst of this chaos, Fiennes peddles a few small, squalid dreams. He's the illegal dealer of a virtual-reality service that was developed by the FBI but has now slipped into the black market. You pop a tiny disc into the hardware, plop what looks like a tarnished bronze cap down on your head, push a button and then record your own experience or—this is what Fiennes's clients want—play back someone else's experience, everything from a girl rubbing herself down in the shower to a heist that ends with the robber plunging from a roof.

Despite its futuristic premise, Strange Days turns out to be the umpteenth variation on the L.A. detective-noir tradition. But it's a good variation, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel) with the right proportion of sentiment and seediness—and an intriguing number of twists and suspects. The very tangled mystery of Strange Days involves, in no particular order, a virtual-reality "snuff" trip recorded by a color-blind killer; the murder of a black rapper; the extralegal activities of two especially brutal L.A. cops; and the emotional and physical perils of Fiennes, who's on the verge of being played for a sap by some very tough cynics. As the romantic antihero, he just can't seem to get over Lewis, as a rock star who makes Courtney Love look like Deanna Durbin. Only in L.A. noir is a femme fatale named Faith.

The English-born Fiennes, whose American accent is better here than in Quiz Show, seems right at home. He's feckless, rumpled and rather passive, with most of his emotional energy kept in reserve for the wrap-up. At that point, you can almost see tiny clouds of despair roiling in his uncommonly eloquent eyes. Bassett, as a high-security limo driver who carries a torch for Fiennes, is also good, and distinctively steely. Lewis doesn't do much more than twist her licorice lips and scream at people, but that's all the part calls for. (R)

Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore

While director Richard Donner's action films (including all three Lethal Weapons) are usually witty and slick, this one is silly and convoluted. Stallone portrays a high-priced hit man who is ruthless and yet so compassionate that he still mourns the Russian mentor he killed 15 years ago. Indeed, he hands loaded pistols to prospective victims so they can opt to commit suicide.

Banderas plays an up-and-coming killer who idolizes Stallone. But, as he proved in Desperado, Banderas has the unfortunate habit for a would-be action hero of flinching every time he fires a weapon. Mostly he giggles and smirks. Moore, as a mewly Seattle computer expert/high-tech thief, is more concerned about her scruffy pet cat than she is about a $40,000 caper she has engineered involving the theft of a mysterious floppy diskette.

When Stallone's anonymous boss hires him to kill Moore, it sets up an inevitable romance between the computhief and the hit man. Moore is so vapid that Stallone's animal energy all but overwhelms her. A none-too-surprising plot twist doesn't lend much tension to the Stallone-Banderas shoot-out that ends the film. Their battle is remarkable only for being so unremarkable. (R)

>TOPLESS BOTTOMS OUT

WHEN IT ARRIVED IN MOVIE THEATERS on Sept. 22, the $39 million Showgirls promised to be a bare-breasted trail-blazer. The sexually explicit tale of a girl whose sole ambition is to rise from topless dancer in a strip joint to topless dancer in a casino, Showgirls was the first major studio film to be released widely with the Motion Picture Association of America's dreaded NC-17. Sure there were drawbacks to that rating—you sacrifice the teenage audience (anyone under 17 is barred), the networks exile your ads to after 10 p.m., and Blockbuster won't carry the video. But sex always sells, doesn't it?

As it turns out, no. After pulling in a respectable $11 million on 1,388 screens its first week, Showgirls went into a steep swan dive. Industry analysts now say the movie may break even, when international revenue is factored in. The movie, damaged off the bat by the refusal of two southern theater chains to carry it, also met with local protests in towns from California to Illinois to Arkansas and Mississippi (where it was yanked from at least three screens). Still, Showgirls' real problems were awful reviews ("a film of thunderous oafishness," according to the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan) and worse word-of-mouth. "Even the people who went to check out the raunchy content didn't like it," says Art Murphy, box office analyst for The Hollywood Reporter.

So how does all this bode for other explicit—if R-rated—movies on the way? The thriller Jade, with Linda Fiorentino as a psychiatrist who turns tricks after hours, opened last week, and Striptease, starring a topless Demi Moore, is grinding before cameras now. Its producer Mike Lobell seems unworried. Showgirls, he says, "would have failed whatever its rating. The material didn't work." Oddly, Showgirls' director isn't inclined to disagree. "Maybe it's just a bad movie," says a dispirited Paul Verhoeven. Of one thing he's sure: After Showgirls, "studios will be hesitant to make NC-17 movies. And I'm certainly not going to be first in line to do it again."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak.