Reese Witherspoon, Ethan Randall

While it has moments of warmth and tense excitement, this live-action adventure is so sloppily directed it is lacking in clarity on all sides, especially in its dim lighting and sound and murky plotting.

It is also shockingly violent and vulgar for a Disney production.

The movie's focal point is a cross-desert trek by two teenagers and their guide. Witherspoon plays the daughter of a game-preserve proprietor in what appears to be an independent, landlocked nation within southern Africa. Randall plays an American visiting the preserve with his father. A group of poachers murders the teens' parents, and Witherspoon wanders onto the scene, so the poachers start hunting her too.

The poachers don't believe that Witherspoon and Randall would try to flee them by walking 700 miles across the Kalahari Desert. Neither will you, though the kids get a guiding hand from Sarel Bok, who plays Witherspoon's Bushman neighbor.

The chase itself offers some excitement, even though it's often hard to tell who is shooting at whom. There's more suspense as to whether sex will occur between the two healthy teenagers than about their chances of escaping the villains. (PG)

Lou Diamond Phillips, Jennifer Tilly, Toshiro Mifune, a big polar bear

Ostensibly an action epic set among the Inuit Eskimos of Northern Canada, this often exciting but self-conscious film could be called Dances with Political Correctness. French director Jacques Dorfmann dwells on sexism, white Americans' exploitation of native peoples and man's despoiling of nature. And while he alludes to the Inuits' own racial prejudices and their ethnocentrism, he also buys into their mythology—lock, stock and dying chief turning into a falcon.

Phillips, who seems to be inheriting the Anthony Quinn mantle as Hollywood's omni-ethnic actor, is an Inuit chief's rebellious young son who believes his father, the venerable Japanese star Mifune, is too conciliatory toward the Inuits' while, French-Canadian oppressors. So he takes his sweetie, Tilly, upon whom the rutting Mifune has also cast a randy eye, and drags her off to live away from their tribal village.

While Phillips runs through his entire repertoire of acting tricks, most of them variations on looking wide-eyed, the film's most impressive performer is the polar bear—moonlighting from the Moscow Circus. In the movie's most involving scene, it attacks Phillips after first taking the roof off his igloo like someone ripping off the top of a Pringles can. (PG-13)

Carlos Gallardo, Consuelo Gomez

That someone could make a good—let alone a commercial movie—for an anorexic $7,000 is as shocking a notion as a Hollywood agent who returns phone calls. But El Mariachi's 24-year-old producer-director-cowriter Robert Rodriguez has done exactly that. This is hardly to say that his film is without flaws. For example, the fact that all the scenes were shot by a single camera gives the movie an undeniably choppy quality. But such lapses can he forgiven in view of the movie's strong narrative drive and refreshing directness.

A comedy-adventure set in a Mexican border town—and filmed in Spanish, with English subtitles—El Mariachi centers on a singer-musician (Gallardo) who has an unfortunate sense of timing. Dressed in black and toting a guitar case, he comes on the scene at the same time as a vengeful thug who is also dressed in black and also carrying a guitar case (albeit one filled with an assortment of weapons).

Gallardo wants nothing more than to make music. Instead, caught in a case of mistaken identity, he must defend himself against competing bands of heavily armed men. He finds brief sanctuary—and love—when he is given refuge by a beautiful bar owner (Gomez), the former girlfriend of a drug kingpin (Peter Marquardt).

Now here's the $7,000 question: Would Hollywood have reacted so ardently (Columbia has signed Rodriguez to a two-year deal) if El Mariachi had had a bigger budget? The filmmaker has, perhaps, the best answer: "If I'd known so many people were going to see it," he has said, "I would have spent more money on it." (R)

>IT TAKES FOUR TO TANGO

WHEN MARLON BRANDO WHIRLED Maria Schneider around a smoky dance hall 20 years ago, it may have been the Last Tango in Paris, but it was hardly the final time the sensuous Argentinian dance would receive big-screen exposure. No less than four current films feature tantalizing tango sequences.

The French import Indochine, nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, contains an affectionate mother-daughter pas de deux involving Catherine Deneuve and Linh Dan Pham. In The Cemetery Club, Danny Aiello does a flirtatious tango outdoors with Ellen Burstyn. And as dance contestants in Strictly Ballroom, an Australian box-office hit, Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice demonstrate the paso doble. a distant Latin cousin of the tango that, to the average moviegoer, looks strikingly similar.

Yet only in Scent of a Woman—an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture—is the tango more than tangential. "It's the first time you see the human side of Al Pacino's character," says Jerry Mitchell, a Broadway hoofer (The Will Rogers Follies) who was summoned to the Manhattan set last year to help Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar perfect their steps. In Scent, Pacino plays a blind ex-Army officer who meets Anwar in New York's Pierre Hotel and, in one of the most delicious dance scenes in recent memory, sweeps her oil her feet.

Anwar, Mitchell says, "was fabulous. She'd studied ballet as a teenager in London and picked up the tango in a couple of sessions." Pacino, he adds, found it tougher, but "he has a natural sense of rhythm. We'd reward him with cappuccino at the end of each session. He got the dance down in 3½ weeks."

While the tango may be difficult to master, its continuing allure, says Mitchell, is easy to explain. "It's very sexual—and extremely romantic. It will be around." he says, "long after these movies are gone."

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman.