Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union in Bring It OnBRING IT ON

It took me quite a while to catch up with the battling-cheerleader hit Bring It On because, quite frankly, most teen flicks these days make me feel about a hundred years old. It's not just that the casts of these films seem obscenely young, or that adults are completely marginalized - those qualities have been staples of the genre at least since Rebel Without a Cause.

What's most bothersome to me is the routine crumminess of the presentation: stilted performances, terrible dialogue, and lame plotting, and I feel like I've seen them all a thousand times before. Like many of you reading this, I'm a John Hughes baby, whose teen years were filled with the likes of Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and our generations's Rosetta Stone, The Breakfast Club. While the plots were nothing to shout about, even the most minor characters had some sharp lines, and although we were saddled with the likes of Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, and Jon Cryer, we were also treated to the wit of Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Ally Sheedy, who could take hackneyed situations and give them something resembling poignance.

Sadly, there are no current filmmakers who have been willing, or able, to approach the sensitivity-to-teens style of Hughes (our best hope, Amy Heckerling, recently crapped out with the aptly titled Loser), and the only thing that keeps me attending the latest crop of teen flicks are a few talented young women that occasionally appear in them, such as Julia Stiles (wasted in Down to You but sensational in 10 Things I Hate About You), Mena Suvari (always good), and the star of Bring It On, Kirsten Dunst. As far as presentation is concerned, Bring It On is typically trashy, with some crushingly bad dialogue (the script is by Jessicca Bendinger) to boot and nothing in the way of interesting, or even adequate, plotting. But it has a great visual perk - well-choreographed cheerleader routines are a great guilty pleasure - and it has Dunst, who adds perk of a different sort.

Not that it matters, but the story centers on the cheerleaders of the white-bread Rancho Carne High School in California, who learn that their prize-winning routines were stolen from a squad in the mostly-black area of East Compton. Unless this is the first teen flick you've ever seen, it won't surprise you that the two schools start out as rivals for the cheerleading championship but eventually learn to respect one another (which has more to do with the film's crossover marketing than it does with real life), and the whole enterprise should be unwatchable. That it isn't is testament to the joyousness of the routines themselves - the only time that director Peyton Reed's work rises above the pedestrian - and the joy in Kirsten Dunst, playing the head of the Rancho Carne squad.

Dunst was amazingly enjoyable in last summer's unfairly neglected satire Dick, and despite playing a much more limited character here, she has the same frisky energy this time around, with an added dose of teen-vamp sensuality that's as comically charged as it is alluring. Like Mena Suvari in Loser, it's obvious that Dunst deserves something better that the drippiness she has to work with here, but teen movies like Bring It On need every ounce of energy that she gives them. Teen movies might not be in better shape than they were in the John Hughes heyday, but at least a few of their performers still provide a spark.


Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro in The Way of the GunTHE WAY OF THE GUN

Those who've been eagerly anticipating Christopher McQuarrie's follow-up to his Oscar-winning script for The Usual Suspects just might enjoy the convoluted twists and turns of The Way of the Gun, his debut as both writer and director. In it, a pair of rather dimwitted cons (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) kidnap a pregnant woman (Juliette Lewis), hoping to get a ransom from the millionaire (Scott Wilson) who has hired her to carry the child for him and his wife. Simple enough, at least simple enough in a McQuarrie universe, but the screenwriter also throws in a pair of cool-cat bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) and an aged enforcer (James Caan), all on the kidnappers' trail, and all of whose motives aren't what they appear to be.

Generally, I'm a sucker for this kind of anything-goes plotting, where a new twist comes about every five minutes and puts everything before it in a new perspective. However, without giving anything away, the majority of the surprises in The Way of the Gun are almost too convoluted to be believed; they might have been easier to take if the cast members were as over-the-top as the film's storyline (as the ensemble in Wild Things was). With the exception of the always nutty Benicio Del Toro and a quick-witted Juliette Lewis, though, the actors don't make much of an impression, and despite McQuarrie's dexterity with a line and - a nice surprise - with the camera, The Way of the Gun is disappointing. It had the elements for something great and turned out ... fine.


Keanu Reeves in The WatcherTHE WATCHER

Keanu Reeves plays a serial killer in The Watcher, but you couldn't really call it a stretch, because he's still not doing anything. Of course, that's probably intentional. After a promising early career, the early '90s saw Reeves attempting to increase his range by assaying roles that seemed, to put it mildly, out of reach: the vampire slayer in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Don John in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the little Buddha in Bertolucci's Little Buddha. He was severely, justly criticized for this work, and his response was to do as little as possible in film after film. And as little as I respect this approach to maintaining his stardom, he might have a point; faced with the ridiculous script and laughably "baroque" direction of The Watcher, his insouciance makes him come off relatively well.

Anyway, Reeves plays a murderer whose victims are afterthoughts compared to the taunting of his pursuer, a cop played by James Spader. Marisa Tomei plays a shrink who explains to Spader that there's a psychic bond between cop and killer, that they're two sides of the same soul, and ... yada yada yada. The post-Freudian analysis is just a tad sillier than the execution of the film itself, which is naggingly predictable in all the usual slasher-flick ways, and which is presented by director Joe Charbanic as an extended, badly staged MTV video. Naturally, this dreck opened at the top of the box-office charts. You have Mr. Reeves' natural reticence to thank.

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