The Princess and the Warrior, the new film from writer/director Tom Tykwer, begins with a gurgling tracheotomy and ends with a leap into the void. In between, there's a convoluted robbery, an airborne toaster, a couple of deaths and a pair of attractive leads, all held together by a camera that swoops and prowls, and a piano score that struggles to wrest tension from minor chords. Best known in this country for his art-house hit Run Lola Run, Tykwer has made five features, most recently the English-language drama Heaven. That film, which stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, is based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski and his frequent collaborator, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and is slated for release by Miramax later this year. If that sounds like a weird fit, it is, but it's also not too shabby for the most famous filmmaker to come out of Germany since Fassbinder, even if Tykwer's career in general and The Princess and the Warrior in particular beg the same question, once elegantly posed by novelist Walter Abish: How German is it?
The princess is Simone, or Sissi (Lola's Franka Potente), a saucer-eyed blond with a vague, slightly stunned affect who works in an asylum filled with the sort of charming lunatics of whom the movies never seem to tire. The warrior is Bodo (Benno Frmann), a soldier turned bank robber whose brutal, hair-trigger temper is betrayed by the tears that periodically stream down his face. Bodo and his brother Walter (Joachim Krl) are planning to rob a bank in order to move to Australia, ostensibly to liberate Bodo from the nightmare memory of his wife's death. Sissi isn't planning on anything, but since Tykwer has a thing for fate and circumstance, that doesn't mean her life won't get interesting. Or at least sensational: Sissi and Bodo meet when he cuts open her neck to insert the plastic straw that will save her life. Sissi is under the truck that's just run her over; for his part, Bodo had slipped beneath to escape two toughs on his trail. "My breath didn't come back," says Sissi in her once-upon-a-time voice-over. "Then the man came."
As you might expect from the director who made Lola run not just through city streets but also through time and space, the tracheotomy is a real showstopper. After Bodo pierces Sissi's neck, he gently wiggles the straw into the slit and orders her to breathe; when she does, a teardrop of blood spouts at the end, where it clings like a soap bubble. The sexual resonance of the image is almost as crude as the operation itself—she's been pierced, first body, then soul—but in the hands of a good or thoughtful director, it could have been a great prelude, a rippling metaphor rather than just a shock. Tykwer may want meaning to go with his special effects, but the problem with his filmmaking, both here and earlier, is that he's more interested in his own bag of tricks than in actually saying something. As Bodo breathes life into Sissi, you think of prop knives and latex throats and whether it's an air pump that makes the bubble of blood tremble so beautifully, not love. You wonder how Tykwer did it, not why.
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In the current issue of Film Comment, critic Olaf Mller writes, "In a way, Tykwer represents everything that went wrong with German cinema in the '90s." For Mller and other dissenters, the filmmaker's brand of one-world pop communion and relentless privileging of form over content are not just irritating in and of themselves, but help to obscure those less commercial German filmmakers who haven't found international acclaim and distribution. Mller may be overstating the case (though on second viewing, Lola's 80 minutes feel almost twice as long and nearly as sluggish as this new feature's 130), but given how few German films make it over here, it's hard to know. What is undeniable is that there's nothing especially unfamiliar, foreign or recognizably German about The Princess and the Warrior; at least Run Lola Run was waggishly, perhaps even intentionally predicated on the issue of punctuality. If Tykwer's new film does well here, it will be as much for its pyrotechnics as for the fact that, as with so many of our own films, it doesn't have anything at all to say about the world and our place in it.
Back in Hollywood, where the blockbuster season seems little more than a blur of poop jokes, big boobs, bigger guns, and cars that alternately speed and crash (who says the movies don't reflect reality, or at least Los Angeles?), now comes Dr. Dolittle, the man who could talk to the animals if only he had a decent script. The best that the good doctor (Eddie Murphy) can do, encumbered as he is by Larry Levin's screenplay and its low joke quotient, is discipline the dog, lay into the lizard and shtick it to the bear, in this case a circus performer called Archie, played by a bear named Tank and voiced by Steve Zahn. Archie and Dolittle team up when a developer threatens to clear-cut a stretch of forest somewhere north of San Francisco. A wild-animal delegation comes to ask for the doctor's help in saving its home; one thing slowly leads to another; and before long, Dolittle is trying to mate Archie, more mild than wild, with the forest's last remaining bear (Ava, voiced by Lisa Kudrow). The idea is that if the bears mate, Dolittle and his creature friends will be able to invoke the endangered-species act and thwart the clear-cutting, which is just the sort of wacky environmental strategy that might work in these times.
Since this plot seems to have interested director Steve Carr (Next Friday) as much as it did Monday's preview audience, the film also comes with jokes about teenage sex, rap music and a bear that acts like a "fairy," which means Dolittle doesn't only peddle KFC and Burger King, it peddles a reflex spasm of homophobia. That isn't surprising, since for all its sops toward the environmental and animal-rights movements, Dr. Dolittle 2 sells its politics the way most Hollywood movies do—with good intentions and dimwitted contradictions. This probably wouldn't be worth mentioning if the film had something else going for it, like a moment worthy of Murphy's talents, or if the contradictions weren't so egregious, even nutty. This is, after all, a movie that advocates the rights of animals to live in the wild, unburdened by human contact, through the use of several hundred trained animals, including a half-dozen bears, a pack of "wild" wolves (there are none in California) and an errant crocodile. Zahn's SoCal whine may occasionally elevate the film's lowest common denominator ("I can play polar," Archie boasts. "'I'm freezing!'"), but there's nothing funny about the sight of Tank dancing for his dinner. Talk to the animals, sure—just don't condescend to either them or us.
The Princess and the Warrior was written and directed by Tom Tykwer; produced by Stefan Arndt, Maria Kpf and Stefaan Schieder; and stars Franka Potente and Benno Frmann. Now playing at the Nuart Theater, West Los Angeles; Dr. Dolittle 2 was directed by Steve Carr; written by Larry Levin, based on the stories by Hugh Lofting; produced by John Davis; and stars Eddie Murphy. Now playing countywide.