Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon

At last, a decent summer movie with big-name stars but no flying cows, exploding chewing gum or invading aliens. Not that smashing special effects aren't cool. It's just that Courage Under Fire, while reconnoitering some previous military movie terrain, demonstrates the potency of a film that's well acted and directed and tells a solid story.

To wit: An Army officer (Washington) relentlessly searches out the truth about what happened the night a medical-evacuation pilot (Ryan) and her crew got trapped behind enemy lines during the Gulf War. The pilot, who died in action, has been nominated for a posthumous Medal of Honor, but as Washington interviews the men who served under her, he finds worrisome discrepancies in their accounts of the episode. (The movie, tipping its helmet to Rashomon, shows each survivor's differing version in flashback.) What gives the story its greater resonance is the fact that Washington is a man questioning his own honor, having mistakenly given an order to fire on his own men during the Gulf War.

Washington is excellent, nicely underplaying his big scenes and ably conveying a righteous man currently ill at ease with himself. Ryan, seen only in the flashbacks, is convincingly gritty and shows nary a trace of her usual cuteisms. In supporting roles as members of Ryan's crew, Phillips and, especially, Damon are standouts. One caveat: Although Courage is unfailingly intelligent, it's never quite as moving as you suspect that director Ed Zwick {Glory) thinks it is. The script is too schematic, its pieces fitting together like Lincoln Logs. Still, while most of this summer's blockbusters appeal to the kid in us, this one rewards the adult. (R)

John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick

Whenever Travolta appears onscreen, one can't help recalling the sexual magnetism that he showed early in his career. Ah, youth! Today he's a pleasantly attractive man, approaching middle age, who appears to have enjoyed many a good meal. And yet he still holds the camera with unassuming ease. Travolta can project a fundamental sweetness that he manages to keep from becoming cloying. He knows just how many lumps of sugar to dole out. His performance in Phenomenon, a silly but touching fantasy, is as gentle and graceful a star turn as you're likely ever to see.

Travolta plays a not-too-bright mechanic in a small, rural town somewhere in Northern California. On the night of his 37th birthday, he looks up at the sky and beholds some sort of astral phenomenon, a milky blast of light, which knocks him to the ground. Was it a tap to the head from some alien force? Perhaps. Suddenly he can play chess like a master, devour books in a single sitting, learn new languages in minutes and predict earthquakes. With telekinetic power, he even makes paper clips dance in the air. The locals are at first impressed, then alienated.

All of this is broadly done—the town exists in Hollywood, not in America—but Travolta's performance holds it all together. There's his pleasure and then elation over his new gift, wistfulness and then sadness as it isolates him from the comparative dumb-dumbs he loves, including Sedgwick, whose strange occupation here is making ugly chairs out of twigs. Phenomenon has been compared to Forrest Gump but, thanks to Travolta, it's the better film. (PG)

Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O'Donnell

Clad in an oversize yellow slicker, Harriet, 11, spends her days spying on her friends and neighbors and writing down everything she sees in a notebook marked PRIVATE. Many of her observations are nasty ("I'll bet one day Miss Elson [her teacher] goes on a psycho killing spree"). When Harriet's classmates get ahold of her notebook and read her malicious observations about themselves, they shun her big-time. This is when Harriet learns the hard way that being clever isn't everything. You gotta have friends.

Harriet the Spy, a zippy little adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh's impertinent 1964 children's book, is a movie for smart kids. Especially wannabe writers—they're the ones who will most identify with Harriet and her quest to record and analyze everything she sees. As Harriet, the 10-year-old Trachtenberg (of Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete & Pete) is winning without being winsome, something the novel's many fans know their stubborn heroine most definitely would never be. O'Donnell, wearing a sporty beret and declaiming her lines as if flinging snowballs, portrays Harriet's all-knowing nanny. A sort of zaftig Mary Pop-pins without the airborne umbrella, she dispenses wise advice ("Sometimes a really small lie can be a really big help") as freely as a politician making promises. (PG)

Jean Reno

In this lowbrow French comedy, a 12th-century knight (Mission: Impossible's Reno, who acts with stony majesty) enlists the aid of a wizard to travel back in time for a few hours—he wants to avert a murder he just accidentally committed—but gets propelled, along with his squire, into the 20th century. There he learns, to his disgust, that his family has declined into mere suburban comfort and that his castle is now run as a luxury hotel by the squire's distasteful, socially striving descendant. The knight isn't all that tasteful himself, given his ignorance of hygiene. Shown a toilet, he observes it with blank indifference.

Someone must have thought that bathroom humor is comedy's international language, translatable into worldwide guffaws. But The Visitors, which has become one of France's top-grossing movies ever, is resoundingly unfunny. Perhaps what really appealed to Gallic audiences was the movie's undercurrent of nostalgic gloire. (R)

>Volcano Movies

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER

IT MAY BE HARD TO IMAGINE, BUT there actually was a time when "tornado chasing" was not a part of our collective vocabulary. Now, with Twister whirling past $200 million at the box office, Hollywood is already chasing the next natural disaster: volcanoes.

In early June, director Roger Donaldson (Species) started cameras rolling on Universal's Dante's Peak, starring Pierce Brosnan as a volcanologist and The Terminator's Linda Hamilton as the mayor of fictional Dante's Peak, where a long-dormant mountain is ready to rumble. This month, shooting begins on Fox's Volcano, starring Tommy Lee Jones, in which, says director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard), "the people of Los Angeles lay aside their quarrels and jealousies to fight the common enemy"—lava, that is.

Shooting two films about the same subject is often not such a hot idea. In 1991, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves helped cause a Robin Hood film starring Patrick Bergin to give up its U.S. theatrical release. And the threat of 1995's virus thriller Outbreak forced a competing project, The Hot Zone, to be shelved. This time the word from all concerned is that the two movies can happily coexist. "Volcano is a more traditional disaster movie," says Peak producer Gale Anne Hurd. "Ours is more of a scientific adventure film." Volcano's Jackson claims he's "not conscious of any direct rivalry."

Audiences, however, may feel that a little lava goes a long way: Volcano and Dante's Peak are both set for release next summer. As if that weren't enough, there are two floods and a forest fire in film development, and one called Tsunami in which a tidal wave heads for San Francisco. Get your protective gear ready!

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • F.X. Feeney.