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There are numerous elements in The End of Violence, Wim Wenders’ odd and unsatisfying new film, that reflect his earlier work: The high-tech surveillance subplot recalls Until the End of the World; a frustrated European director in Hollywood echoes the one in the last section of The State of Things; the cameo by cult B-movie director Sam Fuller follows his appearance in The American Friend; Ry Cooder’s slide guitar twangs as it did in Paris, Texas. Still, the movie The End of Violence most resembles is not by Wenders at all.

This is a film in which characters who live in splendid detachment from everyday L.A. come to recognize the neighbors they’ve long ignored. It’s a film in which a producer who specializes in bloody movies is made to realize that violence is no abstraction in contemporary L.A. It’s a film in which the rich, pampered, and oblivious are bettered by their contact with the underclass. It is, in short, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon.

Wenders’ film is less of a sit-dram than Grand Canyon. It’s more eccentric, more personal, and more stylistically distinctive. Still, it seems just as fundamentally misconceived. As Kasdan’s ode to everyday Angelenos just proved how little he knew about them, so Wenders’ indictment of Hollywood (scripted by Nicholas Klein from a story by Klein and Wenders) shows how smugly European this most Americanized of New German Cinema directors remains.

The film’s central figure is Mike Max (Bill Pullman), who combines the Kevin Kline and Steve Martin characters of Grand Canyon. He’s an arrogant action-movie producer (Joel Silver, basically) who controls his world by e-mail, fax, and phone from a seat beside his pool overlooking the Pacific. From inside his palatial house, his wife Paige (Andie MacDowell) calls to say she’s leaving him. Mike is more concerned, however, about heading off a possible lawsuit from a stuntwoman (Traci Lind) who’s been injured on the set of his latest film.

Then Mike is carjacked and threatened with death, but somehow survives. The incident transforms him. Rescued by Mexican-American gardeners, he takes refuge with a poor but happy extended family. At first he seems to be in shock, but gradually it becomes clear that he enjoys his new life and has no intention of returning to his old one. Left alone, quiet Paige quickly grows into the role of Hollywood production chief. She even begins an affair with Six (K. Todd Freeman), a gangsta rapper who was working on the soundtrack of Mike’s film.

Watching all this from a clandestine perch is Ray (Gabriel Byrne), a technician working on a new surveillance system that promises to bring “the end of violence” to gang-buffeted L.A. An amiable technophobe—he walks to work!—Ray has mixed feelings about the project. In fact, after meeting Mike at a conference, Ray sent him a lengthy e-mail detailing the plan. When he was a producer, Mike was too busy to read it. Now that he has time on his hands, he’s interested by the document. So are the neofascists who control the surveillance project. (You can tell they’re neofascists because they hire a Salvadoran woman whose family was butchered by the death squads (Marisol Padilla Sánchez) to keep tabs on Ray.)

There’s more, but The End of Violence is less a narrative than it is a series of overlapping tracts. Wenders moves his characters through these various concerns as if they were chess pieces, and the actors respond with performances that are mostly wooden. (The exception is the elderly Fuller, playing Ray’s father, whose delivery is so halting that his presence is an embarrassing indulgence.) The director’s intent is apparently satirical, but the film’s tone is so inconsistent that even the most obvious Hollywood jibes—as when Mike offers the carjackers “a million dollars in points” to spare his life—seem ponderous.

Pascal Rabaud’s cinematography is elegant, and Cooder’s score (with Jon Hassell on trumpet) is haunting, but they’re mismatched with Wenders and Klein’s shopworn commentary on the biz and the American proclivity for violence. Visually quoting Michelangelo Antonioni, Edward Hopper, and Nicholas Ray, Wenders remains the consummate European art-film director. But the notions that underlie the film range from condescending (the contented working-class ethnic family) to sanctimonious (the Salvadoran victim of American imperialism) to clichéd (the Angeleno who actually walks, upscale Americans isolated by technology). The director, an aging Kinks fan, even decrees the end of gangsta rap.

The End of Violence was made quickly while Wenders waited for funding for another L.A.-based project, The Billion Dollar Hotel, a futuristic tale written by Klein from a story by U2’s Bono. Ironically, it arrives instead of Lisbon Story, the much better Wenders film released last year in Europe. Although The End of Violence has certain marketing advantages—it’s in English with recognized American actors—Lisbon Story has more of the director’s characteristic warmth and wit. (Perhaps the American Film Institute, which showed the film once last year, will bring it back.) Both are films about filmmaking, but where the high-tech The End of Violence merely scolds, the sweetly nostalgic Lisbon Story is more open to the medium’s possible future.

To Bertrand Blier, sexual passion is inexplicable, disruptive, and messy—which is what he likes about it. More than 20 years after announcing himself with the controversial Going Places, the writer/director is still spinning tales of charismatically loutish men and compliantly insatiable women. As his new Mon Homme demonstrates, however, he’s gone rather soft over the years, and is increasingly out of step with his countrymen.

Mon Homme’s central character, Marie (Anouk Grinberg), is the happiest of hookers. Working a Lyons arcade, she makes lots of money, but sees her calling as both pleasure and a sort of social work. “A man’s never ugly if you look at him right,” Marie advises a newcomer to the trade, and indeed she particularly enjoys catering to older men whose bodies now lag behind their desires. (That Marie’s calling is both earthy and spiritual is emphasized by the soundtrack, which mixes Barry White’s cooing with Henryk Gorecki’s churchly choral music.) So it’s no great stretch for the heroine to pick a filthy homeless man, Jeannot (Gérard Lanvin), and offer him food, shelter, and her body.

In the sort of unconvincing epiphany typical of Blier films, Marie is overwhelmed by Jeannot’s sexual prowess. She insists that he become her pimp, a concept she has to explain to him. “Then I’d belong to you,” she rhapsodizes. Cleaned up and outfitted in a suit, Jeannot decides to play the role he’s been given. He picks up another woman, whom he calls Tangerine (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi), and tries to make her a hooker as well. Although Tangerine also falls for Jeannot, she doesn’t enjoy prostitution. The few tricks she turns, however, are enough to get Jeannot arrested for procuring. He’s sent to prison, and the heartbroken Marie loses all her enthusiasm for her vocation.

Although sexually frank in a way that’s still provocative in America, Mon Homme is otherwise unsurprising. Its principal asset is Grinberg, who is pretty, engaging, and exuberant enough to make her character seem almost credible. The film’s real point, however, arrives after Marie has abandoned prostitution. Settled and the mother of two, she finds her family destitute because her husband (Olivier Martinez) can’t find a job in recession-battered France. She takes to the street, only to discover that today’s clients are much stingier than they used to be; some would even rather put their spare cash into investments than into her pocket!

This is only a short section of the film, yet it seems the most heartfelt. It’s an acknowledgement of defeat, Blier’s lament that the French are no longer as obsessed with sex as he is. Money has conquered pleasure in the country that steadfastly declares its independence from “Anglo-Saxon” (that is, American) utilitarianism. France may still have saucy sex comedies with full-frontal nudity, but they’re just not as much fun when the country’s enduring double-digit unemployment.

Watching The Edge, I was reminded of Eugene Levy’s boast about Armed and Dangerous, the dumb-security-guards-battle-the-Mob flick he made with fellow SCTV alumnus John Candy. “I think,” he said, “it’s the best darn action movie we’ve ever made.” Well, The Edge is the best darn action movie David Mamet has ever scripted. Which is to say that it features two antagonistic men and a lot of tough talk, but it also has a bear.

Actually, the biggest stretch for Mamet is the character of Charles (Anthony Hopkins), a mild-mannered billionaire. Unlike most of the writer’s characters, Charles is not a blustering bully. When he, fashion photographer Bob (Alec Baldwin), and the obligatory black guy who’s gonna die (Harold Perrineau) crash in the Alaskan wilderness, Charles tries to take a calm, rational approach to their plight. Since their plane sank in a lake, they have virtually no supplies. But Charles is well-read, a fount of practical knowledge that his upscale urban lifestyle has never put to the test. His cautious, methodical approach may not be ideal, but it’s certainly preferable to following the instincts of Bob, who’s a more typical Mamet hothead.

There are many drawbacks to being lost in the Alaskan wilderness, among them cold and hunger. Mamet and director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) embody the region’s perils, however, in a bear (sometimes real, sometimes animatronic) that tracks the men. The single-minded carnivore follows Charles and Bob for days, rearing dynamically on its hind legs and roaring every time the proceedings get too talky. Given Mamet’s tendencies, this means the bear makes regular appearances. In most recent action flicks, the heroes outrun explosions. Here, they outrun a grizzly, an equally improbable achievement.

The bear is not the only menace, however. Once Charles and Bob near civilization, the latter’s infatuation with the billionaire’s wife (Elle Macpherson, who appears only in the scenes that frame the adventure) becomes an issue. Having survived the straightforward hazards of the wilderness, they must negotiate human treachery. This plot twist doesn’t do any more to illuminate character, however, than did the challenges of nature. With the mountains of Alaska (actually Alberta) behind them, Mamet’s characters remain stagy; Charles and Bob repeat the story’s tag lines as if they’ve been indoctrinated rather than imagined. Once again, Mamet demonstrates that you can take the man out of the theater, but you can’t take the theater out of the man.CP