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Subway Directed by Luc Besson At the Harvard Square Theatre

By Jonathan S. Steuer

MEET THE NEW WAVE. Same as the Old Wave.

Subway, Luc Besson's retarded new film about crime and punishment in the Parisian underground, is everything you'd expect from the post-Diva school of French, filmmaking: lettuce-crisp photography, a plot no less difficult to follow than the average Jacobean tragedy, plenty of MTV ear-and-eye candy, a handsome hero, a tongue-in-chic heroine, and beaucoup world-weary supporting characters who walk around with Arc de Triomphe-sized chips on their shoulders.

The only problem is that Subway isn't as smart as it would like to be. In fact, it really isn't smart at all. Visually, stylistically, thematically, et cetera, it comes up empty in the Brains Department. The script is banal. The acting, deadpan-dull. And the images clutter up like so many hip books on a crowded coffee table. With the possible exception of Gremlins, Joe Dante's unintentionally horrific testament to the decline of Western Civilization, Subway may be the most completely offensive, manipulative, and downright irritating picture in recent memory.

SUBWAY ISN'T ART, it's kitsch. It panders to an audience that gets a kick out of movies that stick their tongues out at themselves. Like Liquid Sky and the immensely overappreciated The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension, Subway takes the audience by the hand and says, "Look, kid. It's time to get a little crazy. For the next coupla hours we're gonna talk about some serious things. Murder, Marriage Crime. The usual sociopathy. But not to worry, old buddy old pal [patting the audience, puplike, on the noggin], 'cause through it all, for all our seriousness, we're not gonna take ourselves all that seriously."

The only problem with this approach is that it requires a light touch. See Alan Cox's wonderful Repo Man or Scorsese's street-smart After Hours for effortless demonstrations of a delicate hand. But Subway, with its insistent apathy and learn-while-you're-luny preachiness, is as subtle in the end as a Punch and Judy pugil stick.

Besson inflicts his audience, whom he clearly despises, with didactic-as-all-get-out musical sojourns. In one we're told that we watch too much TV. Neat-o. In another we learn, to the sound of gunfire, that people kill people. Brilliant. Other scenes are less direct. At a pointless dinner party, the pre-Madonna-esque Ford girl heroine (portrayed, through the eyelashes, by international Cover Girl Adjani), tells a roomful of squares exactly what she thinks of them. With her Bride of Frankenstein fright wig and a gutter-mouthed talent for the unprintable expletive, she makes a speech unparalleled in pure offensiveness. The audience is cued to laugh uproariously. But profanity-as-a-punchline went out with The Bad News Bears, and the audience remains untickled and stone-faced, blushing uncomfortably in a suddenly confining theatre seat.

The only seemingly human thing in this whole artificially intelligent movie is actor Christopher Lambert, who gives an appropriately understated performance as the bleach-blond fugitive, Fred. Lambert, best known for his lead role in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, invests a lot of intelligence and humanity in his role as a curiously pathetic underground rogue. When he blows a safe, or cracks a joke, he lets out a little cackle like a parched hyena. And when his character is quite literally resurrected at the film's insipid conclusion, Lambert's performance comes close to resurrecting the picture as well.

Still, everyone knows the saying about "close." And in spite of Lambert's dead-ringer performance, Subway is an unmitigated bomb.

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