Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames

The hero (Cage) of director Martin Scorsese's latest bloody Valentine to New York City is a paramedic, but it's a good bet that the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians will not be using this relentlessly grim drama as a recruiting film. Unless, that is, NAEMT is looking to fill its ranks with despondent burnouts like Cage's character, a guy so disquieted by his daily dealings with death that he drinks on the job and dips into the pharmaceuticals stashed in his ambulance's cupboards. His partners are no better role models. One (Rhames) is a wild man at the wheel who crashes their ambulance with blithe abandon; another (Tom Sizemore) is a psychopath who beats up patients he is supposed to be treating. "It has been months since I saved anyone," Cage says early on. Little wonder.

Based on Joe Connelly's 1998 novel of the same name, Bringing Out the Dead marks the fourth collaboration between Scorsese and scriptwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ). Like their earlier movies, it is dark and full of anguish. Unlike the others, it doesn't have much of a story to follow as Dead chronicles Cage's downward spiral over the course of three nights on duty. The only bright spot in his life is his tentative friendship with Arquette (Cage's wife in real life), an ex-junkie he meets when her father suffers a heart attack.

What Dead does have going for it, besides committed performances by Cage and the rest of the cast, is a bravura visual style, including a haunting sequence in which ghostly figures emerge from beneath empty nighttime streets to clutch at a hallucinating Cage. (R)

Bottom Line: Great-looking film, but plot needs CPR

Taye Diggs, Nia Long

Featured attraction

Memo to would-be novelists: Write what you know, but if you slept with your best friend's girl back in college and never told him, don't confess all in your first book unless you do a really good job of disguising everyone. Harper (Diggs), the fledgling novelist who is the protagonist of this agreeable romantic comedy, hasn't done so, and it could get him into big trouble when he heads to Manhattan for his best friend's bachelor party and wedding. If his old buddy (Morris Chestnut), a jealous pro football star, finds out about the affair before the wedding, everybody might just as well boil the rice.

With its plot about ex-college pals working through old tensions and romantic longings, The Best Man puts an updated, African-American spin on The Big Chill. The movie is slow to start and rambles toward the end but overall it marks a sprightly debut for writer-director Malcolm D. Lee (cousin to Spike). Everyone in the ensemble cast gets a chance to shine, but those who do so most brightly are sexy Diggs (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and scene-stealer Terrence Howard, who is hilarious as an amorous cad. (R)

Bottom Line: A wedding party worth joining

Melanie Griffith, Lucas Black

Surely millions would agree that Melanie Griffith is lucky to have landed Antonio Banderas for a husband. And perhaps just as many millions would say he got himself one fabulous bride. But teamed as director and star of Crazy in Alabama, they're the couple from hell. The Spanish matinee idol's debut behind the camera is a cross between Breakfast at Tiffany's and To Kill a Mockingbird, which is something like bringing out the crystal service for a breakfast of eggs, ham and grits. Griffith, who really ought to consider dropping the baby-doll act, plays a free-spirited, eccentric Southerner in the tumultuous civil rights era. Lucille poisons her abusive husband, packs his severed head and hightails it out of Industry, Ala. She drives to Hollywood, her mind swimming with dreams of stardom. Peejoe (played by Black), the worshipful young nephew she leaves behind, witnesses the accidental killing of a black kid by the local sheriff (rocker Meat Loaf Aday) and joins the fight to integrate the town. The movie seesaws crazily: One second, Peejoe meets Martin Luther King Jr., the next, Aunt Lucille lands a guest spot on Bewitched. Meanwhile her husband's head whispers taunts from inside a hatbox. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Certifiable

Matthew Perry, Neve Campbell, Dylan McDermott, Oliver Platt

Three to Tango offers a trio of TV stars for the price of one movie. It's an offer that's easy to refuse. On the tube, all three—Perry on Friends, Campbell on Party of Five and McDermott on The Practice—are a pleasure to watch as, week after week, they make us laugh or cry and reveal ever more complex shadings to their characters (okay, so maybe Perry's Chandler doesn't qualify on the last count).

None of which is true here. Three to Tango is a labored romantic comedy that didn't stand a chance from the moment its moronic plot was conceived. Perry plays a Chicago architect who has to pretend he's gay after a business mogul (McDermott) from whom he hopes to win a humongous commission mistakes him for a homosexual. McDermott then asks Perry to keep a platonic eye on his mistress (Campbell), an artist. Perry himself then promptly falls in love with Campbell.

The setup is as strained as a jar of Gerber peas, the plot developments even more so. Perry and Campbell, while unconvincing, at least seem to buy into this mush; McDermott just looks pained. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Stick to TV, all three of you

>THREE KINGS American soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube) set out to steal Saddam Hussein's secret cache of gold after the Gulf War but get sidetracked into a much nobler mission. Twists and turns and packs a wallop. (R)

GUINEVERE Refreshingly clear-eyed look at affair between a younger woman (the ferociously talented Sarah Polley) and an older man (Stephen Rea). Smart, funny and exquisitely sad. Designing Women's Jean Smart scores as Polley's disapproving mom. (R)

BOYS DON'T CRY The ugly underbelly of a small Nebraska town is revealed in this blistering drama, based on a true story, about the murder of a young woman found to have been passing for a man. Hilary Swank is heartbreaking as the hero(ine). (R)

>Steve Zahn

In Hollywood, you're only as good as your last picture, which is why Steve Zahn lives in Warren County, N.J. "There's something a lot more honest about small towns," says Zahn, who owns a working farm with his wife, actress Robyn Peterman. "You're not judged by your job, it's how you do your work and what kind of a person you are. It's refreshing."

By any yardstick, Zahn, 31, is thriving. An actor who has made a career of small but vivid turns in films, including Out of Sight and You've Got Mail, Zahn is winning raves—including an award at January's Sundance Film Festival—for his performance as an escaped con masquerading as a gay beauty-pageant director in Happy, Texas. Zahn said he loved shooting the comedy in part because it was done in, yes, a small town (Peru, Calif.). "I'm just comfortable in that environment," says Zahn, who grew up in the small city of Marshall, Minn. "I like cows."

Besides snubbing L.A., Zahn, who next plays Rosencrantz in a version of Hamlet (with Zahn's Reality Bites costar Ethan Hawke as the great Dane) due in February, has little patience for peers who take their jobs for granted. "I've been on [sets] where people obviously have never had a paper route and don't know what real work is," says Zahn. "This can truly be the most incredible job. If you don't attempt to make it the most fun job in the world, then you should be ashamed of yourself."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Elizabeth Leonard.