"The Russia House," based on John le Carre's post-glasnost spy thriller, and the film version of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" are examples of odd cinematic approaches to best-selling novels.
The former is a complex, highly detailed book that gets a far too complicated film treatment, distilling the suspense in the process. It is saved, however, by the emphasis on its love story, which, in the more than capable hands of Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, becomes quite enjoyable. "Bonfire," however, gets a much broader comic treatment than Wolfe probably intended in his very dark satire, and in the end seems quite cynical, empty and shallow - not unlike its characters.
- "THE RUSSIA HOUSE" has Michelle Pfeiffer as a Soviet messenger who has a book manuscript written by a high-ranking Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer), which details his country's military might. Pfeiffer attempts to contact book publisher Connery, but the manuscript is intercepted by British intelligence.
During a debriefing session, Connery's character is established as a small-time publisher who spends most of his time drinking and pontificating, often saying things he's not sure he really believes. On one occasion in the Soviet Union, he unknowingly impressed and inspired Brandauer to his action.
So the Brits (headed by James Fox) work with the CIA (headed by Roy Scheider) to use Connery, hoping his blossoming relationship with Pfeiffer will lead them to Brandauer and whether his information is correct.
Meanwhile, Connery and Pfeiffer fall in love.
Director Fred Schepisi ("A Cry in the Dark") and screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Empire of the Sun") have made their story overly complex, especially in terms of flashbacks and dialogue. Ugly Americans get the worst treatment, and there are no clear villains.
But, by and large, the film is witty and intelligent, and the love story, which receives the bulk of attention, works very well. Connery and Pfeiffer are terrific together. And the location shooting in the Soviet Union is breathtaking.
"The Russia House" is rated R for profanity and vulgarity, most of it from Scheider, along with some implied sex and partial nudity a brief shower.
- "THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES" is a live-action cartoon by Brian De Palma, his first non-violent movie in quite some time (his hits include "The Untouchables," "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill").
Looking at the film on its own terms, the main problem is that it's simply too broadly played - every character as caricature.
Tom Hanks plays a New York stock wizard with power and wealth, a beautiful, if vapid, wife (Kim Cattrall) and an equally beautiful and even more vapid mistress (Melanie Griffith).
One night Hanks and Griffith take a wrong turn and wind up in the South Bronx, where they accidentally hit a black youth who lands in the hospital in a coma. A black reverend teams up with the youth's mother to call for justice and soon it has become a racial tempest polarizing the city, with the bigoted Jewish D.A. (unbilled F. Murray Abraham) demanding Hanks be hung.
Meanwhile, a down-on-his luck, boozy tabloid reporter (Bruce Willis) pumps up the story, making it much more than it is - and sees his own star rise.
After screaming histrionics, racist epithets in every direction and more broadly played stereotypes than one film can hold, the black judge presiding over the case (Morgan Freeman) offers a penultimate speech about love and justice. Then the film closes on a cynical one-liner from Willis. (And it is symptomatic of the film's annoying superiority that, in the end, the injured youth's condition is never resolved.)
De Palma's distracting camera tricks, including his trademark circling shots and loads of fisheye lens closeups, seem designed to botch rather than serve the material, and the only players who come off well are Willis and Freeman.
"The Bonfire of the Vanities" is a real mess, and fans of the book will be even more disappointed than the rest of the audience.
It is rated R for profanity, vulgarity, sex, partial nudity and violence.