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Midway into the first chapter of Flirt, Hal Hartley’s latest experiment, Bill (Bill Sage) wanders into a men’s room and wonders aloud about the romantic ultimatum just delivered to him by his girlfriend Emily (Parker Posey). When the guys using the urinals offer philosophical advice, it becomes clear what this film is: a musical. This impromptu chorus doesn’t burst into song, of course, but the logic of the scene is that of an arch contemporary variant of the MGM musical. Not that contemporary, actually: The film that Flirt recalls at that moment is A Woman Is a Woman, the 1961 arthouse romp in which Jean-Luc Godard imagined his own relationship with then-wife (and star) Anna Karina as something out of Gene Kelly’s cinematic portfolio.

Flirt’s dance scene doesn’t come until the final part, when Hartley has moved from New York to Berlin and on to Tokyo. But then, all three episodes are essentially the same, since the fundamental dialogue doesn’t change: In each one, a lover poses the same question and receives the same response. The game of love, the film supposes, is the same worldwide—or at least in those countries where an uncommercial New York writer/director like Hartley can get funding for a small anthology film (as did Jim Jarmusch for Night on Earth).

Originally conceived as a short, Flirt tells the story of Emily, who’s about to leave for three months in Paris, and Bill, who’s condemned as an “aimless flirt.” Since Emily is traveling to a city where she has another lover, she wants Bill to make a solid commitment before she leaves. Bill promises to tell Emily of his intentions before her flight leaves later that day, and rushes off to find Margaret, with whom he has also carried on a flirtation. Instead, he encounters Margaret’s husband, Walter (Martin Donovan), who’s distraught and carrying a gun. They talk, then tussle, and Bill gets shot—accidentally, if not entirely unintentionally—in the face. After a stint in the emergency room, Bill must decide whether or not to follow Emily to Paris.

Hartley then moves to Berlin, where he repeats the story, this time with Johan (Dominik Bender) the earnest lover, Dwight (Dwight Ewell) the (gay, black) flirt, and Greta (Geno Lechner) the anxious spouse of Dwight’s never-seen flirtation, Werner. Certain details change: Berlin is more overtly sexual than New York, and phone cards replace coins. Instead of men at urinals, Dwight addresses some construction workers, who then discuss the young man’s dilemma in solemn Germanic terms—”to flirt is to exist in ambiguity,” muses one—before turning their attention to Hartley’s film itself. (They decide it will be a failure, but an interesting one.)

The third episode follows the same scenario, adding such Tokyo local color as hard-liquor vending machines and officious cops. It also chops up the chronology and personalizes the romantic dilemma: Miho (Miho Nikaidoh) is a dancer who’s been flirting with the married leader of her troupe, named Ozu after the estimable Japanese director. Her lover is Hal, an American filmmaker played by Hartley himself. Perhaps out of modesty, the director gives himself an even smaller role than his counterparts Emily and Johan; this time, the third object of desire (Toshizo Fujiwara) actually joins his tormented spouse, Yuki (Chikako Hara), on screen, while Hal is mostly seen packing film cans into a car for the trip to the airport. This is also the chapter that provides the most hopeful ending—assuming, of course, that transforming mere flirtations into lasting relationships is a hopeful accomplishment. (And judging by the punishment—disfigurement—that Hartley devises for his trio of flirts, he must consider erotic dabbling a serious offense.)

Obviously, this is not a film for those who just like a nice story. Indeed, Hartley’s story is nothing special. The pleasure is in the knowing variations he works on it, in the elegant compositions, editing, and imagery (shot by Hartley regular Michael Spiller), as well as in the contrast between the director’s chilly style and the heat the various lovers feel (or feel they’re supposed to feel). Where most of Hartley’s films (notably last year’s Amateur, which was wilder and funnier in its deadpan way) have their melodramatic elements, everything in Flirt’s plot is commonplace except for that accidental gunshot. Hartley doesn’t commit himself; he’s merely trifling with narrative fragmentation, much as filmgoers flirt with an intense emotional connection to imaginary characters they’ll never see again. (Well, perhaps on video.)

Flirt, in short, is a suitably casual, unserious effort. Smart but playful, the film takes its fun where it happens upon it, especially in the final episode, where a looser approach to the script, a lovely dance number, and the readymade visual symphony of Tokyo streetscapes provide moments that actually qualify as freewheeling. The film can be seen as an experiment in narrative, or as an indulgence in the liberty that new locations can inspire. Either way, the German construction workers aren’t altogether wrong: This is a minor film, but an interesting one.

Lots of women go back to work when their kids reach elementary-school age, but few so dramatically as Samantha Caine, the heroine of the reasonably witty The Long Kiss Goodnight. The first attempt by Cutthroat Island survivors Renny Harlin and Geena Davis to make the sort of movie that will preclude reviewers from mentioning that flop in their first paragraph, this action flick is as good as much of the phallocentric competition. It’s not enough better, however, to undercut the franchises of Schwarzenegger, Seagal, and Stallone.

Caine (Davis) is a schoolteacher in an anachronistically idyllic Pennsylvania town, where she lives with her 8-year-old daughter, Caitlin (Yvonne Zima), and near her blandly supportive fiancé, Hal (Tom Amandes). There’s only one pesky problem: Caine has “focal retrograde amnesia,” which means she can’t remember anything that happened in her life before she was two months pregnant with Caitlin. She has hired a series of detectives to unravel this mystery, but none has been any help. Now she’s reduced to small-timer Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), an ex-cop and an ex-con. Unexpectedly, Henessey happens upon a clue that will begin the destruction of Caine’s quiet life.

As gradually becomes clear, Caine is in fact Charlene “Charly” Baltimore, a ruthless agent of one of those government agencies so top-secret that their existence is known only to Hollywood scripters like Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero). As her memories—and murderous skills—are reintegrated into her cookie-baking personality, Caine becomes more formidable, but also more threatened. One problem is that her memory is still patchy, and she’s not always clear on why she knows things. Much as she, after a significant trauma, accepted her former false identity as her real one, so she now assumes that people from her past must be her close friends because she has intimate knowledge of them. But when she becomes reacquainted with Timothy (Craig Bierko) and Luke (David Morse), she finds that assumption seriously flawed.

Black’s script also incorporates a few bars of the post-Cold War blues: It seems that some of Caine’s former allies are now conspiring with some of her former enemies; the top-secret agency needs the bad guys in order to justify its continued existence. Told by the president (G.D. Spradlin) that he’s going to transfer the agency’s funds to health care—a better joke than similar movies have managed under similar scenarios—former good guys begin plotting a massive “terrorist” attack they hope will restore their budget. Caine, of course, comes out of retirement just in time to confront this infamy. In the process, she also has to save Caitlin from the villains, thus recognizing that motherhood has put some limits on her old, pitiless style of operation.

Aside from putting Caine on the mommy track, Kiss mostly makes small adjustment to such predecessors as True Lies and Black’s own Lethal Weapon. This time (unlike in the former), it’s mom who’s a secret agent, and even she doesn’t know it. And (unlike in the latter), the crazed young white partner is a woman, while the older, saner African-American buddy is the one who’s always ready with a quip.

Of such modest innovations are new action pictures made, and director Harlin proves himself up to the challenge of treating the bedlam with some humor. His attempts at surrealism may not be very effective—Caine’s visions of her former persona are some of the least vivid nightmares ever committed to film—but the director does get some laughs from music: Santana’s version of “She’s Not There” is an apt theme for the identity-shifting Caine, while Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” ironically suits the unmacho Henessey. (Seeing Jackson sing along with England Dan and John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” tops any dance John Travolta could do to Urge Overkill.) Harlin also stages the final shootout at the Canadian border, a wry acknowledgment that Canada has been standing in for the U.S. throughout the movie.

Perhaps the most functional thing about Kiss’ premise is that it puts no limitations on the madonna/whore possibilities of Caine’s character: In one scene she can court the feminist vote by chiding Henessey for ogling a female jogger, while in another she can titillate male viewers by approaching him as a feral sexual predator. Even while the film entertains doubts about the fundamental femininity of a fierce government killer—note that both of the protagonist’s names are essentially masculine—it expects her to ultimately settle down with her daughter and boring fiancé. As soap-opera scripters have known for decades, amnesia means never having to worry about plot continuity.CP