Goodbye Lover opens with a slinky blonde on the phone, talking dirty and lying—she says she’s naked but isn’t—and then cuts to her in a car, off to sell suburban minimansions while listening to a self-actualization tape. Sex, lies, and audiotape, not to mention ambition and real estate—it’s an, if not the, L.A. story. It’s also a change of pace for director Roland Joffé, who has specialized in dramas set in some of the darkest parts and periods of the Third World, but here means to find something new, even if it’s just Body Heat without the Southern accents.

The slinky one is Sandra Dunmore (Patricia Arquette, a more convincing vixen here than in The Hi-Lo Country). She’s dallying with her brother-in-law, Ben (Don Johnson), not only in empty houses she’s showing but also in the organ loft at the church they both attend. In addition to having a penchant for kinky sex in places where she and her lover might well be discovered, Sandra seems to have given up on her husband, Jake (Dermot Mulroney), an alcoholic who’s foundering at the same public relations agency where Ben is thriving. Jake’s only sympathetic cohort might be Peggy Blaine (Mary-Louise Parker), a naive agency employee. But then maybe everything Goodbye Lover tells us about its four central characters in its first half hour is false.

Well, not everything—Sandra really is a manipulative sexpot. But this movie has one of those plots that turn (and turn again) on frequent reversals, so it would be wrong to reveal who really intends to take advantage (and worse) of whom. Still, it must be noted that at some point homicide detective Rita Pompano (Ellen DeGeneres) enters the action. Accompanied by a hopelessly well-meaning Mormon sidekick (Ray McKinnon), Pompano is a female version of the classic hard-boiled detective—cynical, unfeeling, and always right. Throw in a hired killer (an unbilled Vincent Gallo), and the movie has the makings of a murder thriller, albeit one in which the meanest character is a former sitcom star.

Too many plot twists, no matter how bloody, lead to farce, and Goodbye Lover doesn’t pretend otherwise. Although it includes a scene where cops wisecrack while a corpse is disassembled with a power saw, the humor is not all black. A minister (My Dinner With Andre namesake Andre Gregory) delivers a funeral oration full of unintentional double-entendres, and the movie has some fun with such Americana as Dragnet, Thighmaster commercials, and philandering politicians. In fact, it turns one character’s obsession with The Sound of Music into a running gag. Melodies from that white-bread musical even infiltrate John Ottman’s neo-noir score, paying perky tribute to the character who is the film’s anti-Julie Andrews.

As satire of sociopathic ambition, Goodbye Lover is approximately half as nasty and incisive as it means to be, which by current Hollywood standards isn’t too bad. Perhaps the movie only halfway succeeds because the original script, by Arizona playwright Ron Peer, was reworked by veteran hacks Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, whose credits include such annoyances as Toy Story and Money Talks. Cohen and Sokolow may have improved Peer’s work, but when a film is semi-satisfying, as this one is, it’s logical to suspect that it was diluted by the major-studio compromise machine.

In 1992, when they agreed to collaborate on a film that would benefit the Hong Kong Director’s Guild, directors Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam decided to parody Double Impact, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle released the previous year. In that movie, the Belgian kickboxer plays two brothers, born in Hong Kong, who were separated at birth. (Incredibly, Van Damme returned to the separated-at-birth premise for 1996’s Maximum Risk, which was directed by Lam.) Hark, Lam, and writers Barry Wong, Cheung Tung Jo, and Wong Yik didn’t devise the wittiest of scenarios for Twin Dragons, but they had one big advantage over the film that inspired them: Instead of two Jean-Claude Van Dammes, they had two Jackie Chans.

Now awkwardly dubbed and thrown into the gap between Rush Hour and Chan’s next scheduled English-language effort, Shanghai Noon, Twin Dragons is typical of Chan’s ’90s work, although it sometimes shows evidence of an unusually limited budget. After Boomer (Chan) and his troublemaking pal Tyson (Teddy Robin) challenge a local gang boss to a car race, the movie skips right past the apparently too-expensive-to-stage competition to its result: Boomer has lost and now must choose between paying off his wager on the race’s outcome (which he can’t afford) or running a risky errand as a getaway driver for the mobsters.

That would be a simple enough decision for Boomer, but by this time there’s much confusion between the fast-driving, hard-fighting garage employee and his long-lost twin brother, John Ma, an acclaimed pianist and conductor making his first trip to Hong Kong since he was separated from his infant sibling. (The divided-brother setup is recounted in an economical black-and-white prologue that pays a quick homage to the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin.) To add to the bewilderment, Boomer and John have just been introduced to attractive young women, Barbara (Maggie Cheung) and Tammy (Nina Li Chi), whose parallel attractions to the brothers are complicated by circumstances that keep switching the two. Thus Barbara is more taken with the man she thinks is Boomer when she learns that he’s actually an accomplished pianist, while Tammy shows a new interest in the man she thinks is John when she finds that he’s a skilled fighter and ardent lover. (Since Boomer is much more anxious than John to bed Tammy, it briefly occurred to me that John might be gay—but Twin Dragons isn’t that zany.)

Like most of Chan’s more recent outings, Twin Dragons concentrates on gentle physical comedy while conserving the star’s strength for the final extravaganza. He plays Boomer and John—distinguished by the former’s ponytail and earring—in a style that’s as broad as the movie’s most cartoonish sequence, in which the gang boss receives a comeuppance that’s pure Wile E. Coyote. The confusion between the two brothers seldom pays significant comic dividends, especially because it’s not clear why they’re trying to hide each other’s existence from women they have just met.

One of the movie’s curiosities is that all the billed roles except those of Barbara and Tammy are played by HK directors. Thus Lam, John Woo, and other lesser-known filmmakers can be glimpsed in small parts. Amusingly, the final showdown in a car-testing facility features a tribute to the director’s craft: Boomer, who can fight, finds himself locked in a large cage while John, whose hands are made for piano keys, faces the last in a string of thugs. Boomer discovers that he, through a powerful form of sibling empathy, can make John’s body mimic his own moves. As long as John is facing the right direction, this stratagem works well enough, but then comes time for a flying kick. If Boomer goes hurtling through the air, he’ll send John crashing into the hoodlum, breaking John’s descent while Boomer crashes to the concrete floor. Leave it to a Director’s Guild benefit to climax with a scene where the actor gets the glory while the director takes the fall.CP