Ethan Hawke, Arye Gross, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, Frank Whaley

Its antiwar subtext would have made it seem more appropriate 35 years ago, but this film about a real incident that occurred near the end of World War II is involving, always focused and affectingly acted.

Hawke (White Fang), who has a John Wayne-like deliberate style and a Dukeish physical stature, is world-weary way beyond his years as the squad leader of an exhausted unit of GIs operating in Belgium in 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge. Sinise, a Chicago stage actor, suggests profound despair in his screen debut as the squad's oldest soldier, who has recently learned that his infant son has died back in the States. Sinise's emotional breakdown is the event that sends Hawke's squad into a surreal series of events culminating in a scene in which they sing Christmas carols with a group of German soldiers in a snowy field, then conspire with the Germans in an unofficial, localized truce.

Director Keith (The Chocolate War) Gordon adapted the script from William Wharton's novel A Midnight Clear without making the allegorical parts of the story—including a ritualized foot washing—more heavy-handed than they have to be. Nonetheless John C. (Platoon) McGinley all but carries a sign reading EVILS OF WAR as the by-the-book commander whose unit includes Hawke's squad.

Gross (Coupe de Ville) generates great intensity as a Jewish GI motivated to kill Germans. Berg (Late for Dinner) is the squad's joker, while Dillon (The Doors) is a corporal whose natural leadership qualities seem to outrank Hawke's stripes. Whaley, another Doors refugee, plays a judgmental seminary-school dropout with admirable understatement.

While Patton or Ken Annakin's Battle of the Bulge will tell you more about how that savage campaign really happened, this fanciful film will show you how things might have gone if otherworldly sanity reigned more often on this troubled planet. (R)

Brooke Shields, Timothy Dalton, Diana Scarwid

It seemed like Brooke's Gate before it was ever released, but this caper based on the comic strip about an intrepid newspaper reporter is more watchable than dozens of movies that have appeared since it was finished—and then shelved—five years ago.

Shields, 21 when the film was made, is not the worst actress-who-is-really-just-a-transmuted-model of all time. She is most impressive when director Robert Ellis (Reuben, Reuben) Miller concentrates on her legs, least when she has to try to reflect some irony (which, in Jenny Wolkind, Noreen Stone and James David Buchanan's square, unaware script, isn't that often). Mostly she raises questions about how so much sheer prettiness can generate so little sensuality.

Scarwid (Psycho III), all energetic impertinence as a rival reporter trying to scoop Shields on a story involving a secret fuel developed by a mad scientist in a Brazilian village, upstages the star whenever she appears. Dalton, who trots out the rascal persona he used in The Rocketeer, is a free-lance-hero type who becomes Shields' Lois Lane. Like the film's writers, though, he seems to take the plot way too seriously. The ponderous tone is broken only by Scarwid's vamping and flippant Henry (The 'burbs) Gibson, who sputters through a raucous death scene as the mad scientist.

The colorless Tony (The Slugger's Wife) Peck looks like a displaced beach boy as a cartoonist who draws himself into the story. His father, Gregory, certainly never disappeared into the scenery of a movie so completely.

Shields' 1940s-style clothing, the most consistently entertaining part of the film, was designed by Bob Mackie.

When it comes out on video (which should be soon), this will be a decently diverting piece of fluff, not nearly as pretentious as its cousin, Dick Tracy. As for our Ms. Brooke, this film doesn't qualify as a credential for doing Lady Macbeth. But the next producer turned down by Kim Basinger might profitably look Shields' way. (PG)

Albert Finney, Aidan Quinn, Robin Wright

It's 1957, and in a tiny, isolated Irish village the towns-women cluck disapprovingly every time Wright (State of Grace) passes. That's because Wright, the town beauty, has had a baby out of wedlock and now defiantly refuses to name, much less marry, the father. Hoping to win her hand is Finney, a policeman twice her age with the sullen look of a man barely hanging on to his sobriety. Then Wright rebuffs him and takes up with Quinn, an actor who has come to town with the traveling Playboys troupe.

How this romantic triangle resolves itself makes for a sophisticated film filled with delicate moments and gentle humor. The Playboys is easy to recommend to anyone who likes his movies smart but his stories sentimental. (Calling all crypto-saps!) Finney is nigh perfect as the cop; Quinn (At Play in the Fields of the Lord) comes into his own as a leading man (and bats baby blues equal to Paul Newman's); and Wright adds a dash of sass to her serene beauty, hinting at Grace Kelly potential. Except for a long sequence when the young lovers take a motorcycle spin that plays like a travelogue, Playboys marks an enjoyable debut for director Gillies MacKinnon. (PG-13)

Bob Hoskins, William Petersen, Pamela Reed

Here's a movie for those requiring evidence that there's no laugh after death. When Jack Warden, patriarch of a big family, drops dead—he's just back at work after a coronary, and his boob son William (Young Guns II) Petersen throws him a surprise party—the clan gathers for a wake. The contentious group is now headed by eldest son Hoskins (with his on-again, off-again British accent, he is bizarrely cast as Warden's offspring), a tree surgeon in a midlife crisis. Add to the mix Hoskins' sisters, Pamela (Kindergarten Cop) Reed, the family rebel, and Frances (Mississippi Burning) McDormand, a nun accompanied by an illegal alien. Now stir in drug dealer turned embalmer Peter (Local Hero) Riegert, an unwed, pregnant granddaughter (Teri Polo) and mysterious-stranger Nancy Travis. Imagine the merriment when two INS agents hunt for the illegal alien while he's stashed in the coffin.

These actors are a talented lot but hardly talented enough to resuscitate this lifeless script. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Joanne Kaufman.