Grim and gripping

FOR a film that teams Michael J Fox and Sean Penn, Casualties Of War (World, 9.35pm) is not half as bad as you might have reason to expect. It falls apart during the final reel, but for most of the time is hypnotic and perversely gripping.

Director Brian De Palma was lucky enough to be handed his material on a plate. Casualties Of War is based on a famous article in New Yorker magazine by Daniel Lang, in which he detailed atrocities against Vietnamese women by American marines.

In turning it into a film, De Palma joined the ranks of Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola in bringing his personal vision to bear on the conflict.

The film focuses on one patrol, led by latent psychotic Sean Penn, and its inhumane treatment of a young Vietnamese girl (Thuy Thu Le). Penn and Thu Le get top acting honours, but Fox, as the voice of reason, is not bad at all, despite his diminutive nature and usual penchant for comedy.

The problem he faces is that De Palma is caught up in the dramatic situations involved in the Penn-Thu Le conflict leaving Fox to flounder around the edges as best as he can.

If Fox looked a little more angry it might help. Here he is, caught up in the terrors of a war gone wrong, lost in the jungle with the Grim Reaper not far behind, and he still comes across as so clean-cut he cannot be human.

IN Dogfight (Pearl, 9.30pm) the late River Phoenix has more of the Vietnam blank-face about him, and he has not even been there yet. Phoenix is a Marine known as Birdlace who is in San Francisco on his way to the war when he gets caught up in a cruel wager among friends to see who can bring the ugliest date to a farewell party. He chooses Lily Taylor (a superb performance) who is clearly not ugly, but is made to look so when they first meet.

This was barely released to cinemas, and is hard to find on video. But it became something of a sleeper hit, thanks to its unmawkish nature, sympathetic performances and a great script by Bob Comfort. Nancy Savoca's feminine direction helps.

MORE high jinx among conscripts in Biloxi Blues (Pearl, 1.10am), this time towards the end of World War II when New Yorker Matthew Broderick shows up for basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, and is bemused by his fellow draftees - a mixture of vulgar rednecks and likable farm boys.

Biloxi Blues, based on Neil Simon's Broadway play and adapted by him for the screen, manages to satirise both the process of growing up and the military, represented by strange drill sergeant Christopher Walken, whose sadism sows dissent among his troops.

But the dirt really hits the fan when the army goes on a manhunt for gays and one of Broderick's platoon friends (Corey Parker) is suspected.

THE sometimes far-fetched damsel-in-distress story Apology (STAR Plus, 2.00am) is, nevertheless, a seductive thriller, concerning avant-garde New York sculptor Lesley Ann Warren, the psychotic killer pursuing her, and the determined detective pursuing them both. It was written by playwright Mark Medoff and made for cable.

FILMS on Cable Movie Channel: Fatal Obsession (11.00am). Lily Cheung stars as a devoted dancer whose boyfriend gets tired of her dedication to work and starts playing the field. What starts as a neat little story of fidelity turns into a rather violent exposition of revenge.

Rickshaw Man (5.00pm). Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki's delicate examination of class differences in early 20th century Japan. Toshiru Mifune is a rickshaw driver who becomes surrogate father to an army official's son, a relationship strained by the boy's privileged upbringing.

Final Run (9.00pm). Hong Kong production follows a life and death struggle involving narcotics and revenge in the Golden Triangle.

Samurai Reincarnation (1.00am). In 17th century Japan a rebel leader (Ken Sawada) is beheaded, but returns in another form to seek vengeance.