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It would be unbecoming of a grown-up to piss all over some kid’s earnest first film, but Matthew Harrison’s Kicked in the Head only feels like one. It isn’t his first—he has won prizes for his two low-budget features (Rhythm Thief and Spare Me)—and it’s being released thanks to the access-rich nurturing of none other than Martin Scorsese, who has an unerring radar for young directors whose films (Search and Destroy, Naked in New York) no one wants to see. Also, it’s not so much earnest as about earnestness, a concept Harrison treats with equal doses of contempt and sentimentality.

The script seems to think itself wacky, but it’s the sentimentality that plays with more strength of conviction than the contempt. Kicked in the Head follows a pretend-aimless youth around the East Village as he gets tangled up with no-good relatives, bitter and psycho women, violent friends, and even more violent strangers. This being the post-Tarantino era, no young director can imagine a story worth telling that doesn’t involve funny thugs. So here they are—from tire-screeching hair-trigger punks all the way up to Burt Young as a threatening coke distributor.

Redmond (Kevin Corrigan) won’t work or go to school because he’s on a “quest for the truth”; he has just been evicted and lost his idiotic girlfriend, idiotically named Happy (Lili Taylor, whose participation in a young director’s big-time debut is contractually mandatory; either that or Steve Buscemi had the flu). Asked by his sleazy but carefree Uncle Sam (James Woods) to deliver a package, Redmond finds himself caught in a gun battle, absconds with the package (of coke), and moves into the apartment of his pal Stretch (Michael Rapaport, wonderful as always).

No matter how much rhyming tripe he scribbles in his diary or how often he wanders the streets expecting Truth to step on his toe, Redmond keeps bumping up against Life, and don’t think we don’t know it. His interior motif is the explosion of the Hindenburg, and although the “spiritual journey” he expects to take any minute now seems to have been delayed, his pet ejaculation is “Holy shit.” Even Stretch—a bullying, socially conservative beer boor, smart-dumb, surprisingly canny although unintrospective—equates Redmond’s delusional quest with an apt bumper sticker. We also witness, for a while, the fate of a pet dog unleashed into the world; if the dog can get by, so will Redmond.

Corrigan has a troublingly Matthew Brodericky look; his sheen of smugness does nothing to endear him to us. Woods is a shameless hambone who should be stopped—this is not the first time these pages have pleaded for his discontinuance. And Tarantino disease is spreading among our youth at epidemic rates; if you don’t expect the shootout at the beer distributor’s to the tune of Dino singing “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” welcome to America.

It’s not always easy to tell Redmond’s fake-philosophical crap from Harrison’s philosophical crap—Redmond’s just being childish and inept when he blathers to a jaded stewardess (Linda Fiorentino, bizarrely convincing) that she’s an angel carrying his eyes in her holdall. But the spiritual-journey-by-accident that forms the movie itself is an announcement, not a process. If anything, Harrison is too quick to dismiss the postmodern mishmash of beliefs he has sprinkled among the young characters—knee-jerk creationism, cracked science, fortune-cookie wisdom, superstition, and a tangle of reverent ufology—a classic youthful gotta-believe-in-something stew.

The willingness to let tawdry received notions light your path is genuinely earnest, even existential, but Harrison has been to school, so only Redmond—who has had Experiences—gets the enlightenment. Harrison doesn’t seem to like Redmond much; despite the unexpectedly tender last scene, Kicked in the Head treats sophomoric self-dramatization like a tumor, not a starting point. Maybe if he weren’t too busy staging zany shootouts, Harrison would find time to think about why kids act that way in the first place.

The first feature from Dreamworks SKG had better be big: We want nuclear bombs, exploding trains, international crises, swank European locations, and names, names, names. We want a near-look-alike for every recognizable U.S. government muck-a-muck and one of those modern villains with pain in his heart.

Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen could not have done better than to choose this clever but vastly unoriginal script by Michael Schiffer. (The story is based on an article by investigative journalists; it’s the fiction elements that are stale.) No one is going to be shocked by the novelty of the unwittingly sexy lady scientist or the wisecracking rogue Special Forces intelligence officer she’s teamed up with. It will come as news to no one that nuclear expert Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman) happens to be in the pool when her country needs her or that Lt. Col. Thomas Devoe (George Clooney) is being grilled in front of a Senate panel for an incident that may have been part of a successful scheme to entrap a Russian black-market arms dealer but did, after all, involve a bar brawl and a brothel.

The script leads us a merry chase, teasingly asking us to worry about stolen nukes detonating in the Russian wilderness (yawn, let ’em blow themselves to bits), heading toward Iran (whatever), and finally ending up in New York City to make a very important date—hunt them down and slay them like the animals they are! Kelly and Devoe must join forces to track the possessor of the big radioactive greeting card and discover what it is he’s trying to say. Along the way, well, I won’t be giving away too much to say that they both learn a little something about judging by differences. And they both speak fluent Russian—isn’t that cute?

The Peacemaker is what it is, but on a grand scale—bigger, artier, longer, grander, more violent, and much, much more expensive than the competition. The impatient Devoe isn’t just gung-ho, he’s gung-ho to invade Russian airspace. The locations and interiors are shockingly authentic; the press notes list crews everywhere—New York, Los Angeles, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Slovakia, France, Russia, Germany, Austria. What’s supposed to be a middle-class flat in Bosnia looks exactly like one, and two scenes—deaths—set in churches are riots of gilded, high-arched tragic irony. The script isn’t much more thoughtful than its many predecessors, but there’s enough BBQ-apron philosophy to let you know that we’re spoon-fed sociology: “I didn’t join the Russian Army to dismantle it for the Americans” confesses a resentful soldier early on, giving us a little window into the soul of the villain; not only is he angry and disoriented, he’s a regular guy.

Marcel Iures has a great face for a conflicted heavy, but the script hasn’t given his character, exasperated Bosnian citizen Dusan Gavrich, enough inner life. Clooney’s screen size and presence aren’t quite there, but he offsets his slightness with loads of charm and a loose-limbed, careless approach to his role unexpected and winning in a TV actor making a step of this size. Kidman has never moved me, but she’s decorative most of the time, except for a tense scene during which her cud-chewing is a major distraction.

But these are quibbles; a movie of this length and scale will inevitably sprawl a bit. The Peacemaker takes all the elements of a classic post-Cold War international thriller starring romance-novel antagonists, but the execution adds up to much more—an explosive, entertaining art movie aimed directly at the multiplex.CP