Francis Veber is one of the few modern movie directors who understands slapstick. In fact, since Blake Edwards lost his edge, the only other director who seems to know how to work out the intricacies of physical comedy on the big screen may be Thom Eberhardt ("Without a Clue").

Veber is a French filmmaker, author of "La Cage Aux Folles" and "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," and writer/director of "The Toy" and three hilarious yarns that teamed French stars Gerard Depardieu and Pierre Richard.His movies are so funny and have had so much art house success in this country that three of them have been Americanized - "Buddy Buddy," with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; "The Toy," with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason; and "The Man With One Red Shoe," with Tom Hanks and Jim Belushi.

But Veber had nothing to do with them, and all were rather dismal failures.

So now he has decided to do his own American version of his film "Les Fugitifs," which was never released in this country. "Three Fugitives" stars Nick Nolte (certainly an American Depardieu if there ever was one) and Martin Short as two of the title characters.

The plot has Nolte just getting out of prison, a bank robber who has served five years and is determined to go straight. But when he enters a bank to deposit his check from the prison work force, who should burst in but Short, as inept a bank robber as you can imagine.

Naturally, Nolte wants to fade into the background, but as fate would have it, Short chooses him as a hostage and when they go outside the police are sure it's Nolte who's robbing the bank.

What follows is a frequently hysterical series of confrontations, unfortunately interrupted by equally frequent sentimentality and occasional gun battles that are more violent than you might expect. It seems Short is robbing the bank because in his grief over losing his wife he has been unable to care for his young daughter, who hasn't spoken a word in two years. It's not hard to figure that soon she will start talking to Nolte and the three of them will be on the lam from police.

It's unfortunate that Veber feels it necessary to intercut graphic realities (bloody violence, far too much profanity, a rather morbid storyline) into a movie that is so often fanciful farce, and one that will obviously appeal to children who see the ads.

And it's also unfortunate that Veber didn't have enough confidence in his comedy to let it carry the film. Short is very funny here and Nolte, with his Oliver Hardy slow burn, is a wonderful foil for Short's bumbling. And Veber puts them through some great paces, pratfalls and little comic moments that show his strengths as a comedy director. Next time, let's hope he makes a farce that is really a farce all the way.

"Three Fugitives" is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.