Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland

An updated M*A*S*H wannabe about VA hospital doctors coping with lousy work environments, this movie is a moderately entertaining, pointed comedy-drama that starts off better than it finishes. While Article 99 shares the raffish, whatever-it-takes attitude of Robert Altman's 1970 film (and the subsequent TV series), it fizzles when it tries for a big, bring-out-the-guns-and-heavy-ammo climax.

Article 99 follows a group of rogue physicians—"Either you screw the regulations or the regulations screw you," says one—practicing in a hopelessly bureaucratic Veterans Administration hospital. The enemy? Article 99, a real VA rule used to deny treatment to veterans when "the diagnosed condition cannot be specifically related to military service," and the hospital's by-the-book boss (John Mahoney), an empty suit more excited by saving pennies than saving lives.

Ably directed by Howard (Some Kind of Wonderful) Deutch, 99 features an appealing turn by Liotta (GoodFellas) as a wisenheimer surgeon who is more caring than Marcus Wellby and far sexier. Kathy (Clean and Sober) Baker is effective as the psychiatrist who serves as his romantic foil. Also in white coats: Sutherland mainly stands around looking puffy, and Lea (Back to the Future) Thompson mostly jabs alarmingly long hypodermics into patients. The usually admirable Mahoney is limited by the script to being a one-dimensional slimeball. In this case, 99 is a negative number. (R)

Pierce Brosnan, Jeff Fahey

Might your local yardman just up and disintegrate you at a moment's whim? That notion is what passes for a story in this latest of the pulpy films that have leaped, glassy-eyed and gore-dripping, from the pages of Stephen King's scare fiction.

This latest attempt to translate King's horrific talent into a movie interweaves ancient fright techniques with modern technology and winds up as Nintendoized Gothic. All the mythic pieces are present here: the village half-wit, the sadistic priest, the well-meaning doctor who Doesn't Know What He Has Created. The time is now, though, and the resident moron, Fahey (White Hunter, Black Heart), is handy enough with machines to help a local gardener (Geoffrey Lewis) mow lawns. You should see how handy he becomes after the mad scientist on the case (Brosnan) introduces him to the electronic mind games of "virtual reality." This subconscious sanctum looks like a liquid, volcanic Toon Town, but it packs a psychic wallop; pretty soon Fahey—using only "mind waves," ladies and gentlemen, never do his hands leave their wrists—has incinerated a priest who beat him, pulverized a government agent and revved his lawnmower to attack speed. Even so, Brosnan intones, in the speech that's inevitable in these films, "If we use wisdom, not ignorance, then this technology will free the mind of man, not enslave it." Well, sure, Pierce; but next time we'll just let the neighbor's kid do the lawn, thanks, and save everybody a lot of bother. (R)

Dudley Moore, Bryan Brown, Bronson Pinchot

Although the title suggests a comeback vehicle for Jerry Lewis, this is a farce meant to be along the lines of A Fish Called Wanda, only not as blithely mean-spirited. Yes, there's a running gag about accidentally killed animals, as in Wanda, but here they're only birds, not cute little dogs. And, yes, there's a torture scene, but it's only Dudley Moore being tortured. Actually, Moore, playing a wormy London executive assistant sent to Venice to look at a property for his boss, is pleasantly subdued here, almost sweetly forlorn enough to look like Denholm Elliott's kid brother. Moore's mistake is that, along with an assortment of British travelers, he checks into a Venice hotel where a not especially bilingual bellhop (Bronson Pinchot, doing one of his suits-all-nations accents) can't distinguish between the names Orton (Moore), Horton (Richard Griffiths, who's on a sort of blind date) and Lorton (Bryan Brown, a hit man with a contract on an Italian mobster). When the bellboy mixes up everyone's messages, Griffiths is hooked up with Moore's real estate woman (Patsy Kensit), the Mafia mistakes Moore for assassin Brown, and Brown tries to pick off the lonely heart (Penelope Wilton) who has come to meet Griffiths. This is all expertly set up by first-time feature film director-writer Mark Herman. The subsequent twists are clever (the mafioso sends Moore out to do a hit), and the large, amiable cast is game. But the characters tend to be too soft-hearted and too soft-edged (the hit man, it turns out, wants to be a florist), while the escalating shenanigans require no heart at all—just mindless desperation. The best scene is the least hectic: Wilton wistfully singing "Feelings" to Brown in an otherwise empty courtyard. (PG-13)

John Candy, James Belushi, Richard Lewis, Cybill Shepherd, Sean Young

It's a bad idea for supposedly comic cinematic action to swirl around a canine. Too often, the movie in question is a dog—in the case of Once upon a Crime, a dog with fleas. Jilted in Rome, Young is befriended by a dachshund named Napoleon and irritated by an unemployed actor, Lewis. But when the two learn that Napoleon is the prize pooch of a Monte Carlo grande dame, they join forces to return the dachshund and collect a reward, only to be implicated in the dowager's murder.

Other suspects include George Hamilton (in his perma-tan and with Transylvanian accent) and Belushi and Shepherd, an ill-matched couple on a vacation, as well as Candy, a compulsive gambler. The performers marooned in this landlocked Love Boat try to camouflage the dreary doings by near hysterical emoting, to the accompaniment of widened eyes and flailing arms. "My, my, what insouciance," says a man admiring Shepherd's spunk at the roulette table. "It's the dress," she replies. "It shows everything." Once upon a Crime is made intermittently bearable by the presence of Candy, who can wring a laugh out of the biggest wet noodle of a script. "I plan to hold your passport for another 48 hours," police inspector Giancarlo Giannini tells him. "Keep it," says Candy breezily. "I have lots." (PG)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Mark Goodman,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Joanne Kaufman.