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An Unusually Satisfying ‘Game’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The least said about “The Crying Game” the better. Not that it has any serious problems. Far from it. This offbeat emotional thriller is an unusually satisfying film, intricately constructed, surely directed and splendidly acted. But because this is something different, a sophisticated entertainment where the ground is constantly shifting under your feet, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

“Crying Game’s” writer-director is Neil Jordan, the Irish filmmaker who made a splash with “Mona Lisa” several years back. Jordan’s record since has been erratic, particularly where forays into Hollywood are concerned, but with this film he returns to Ireland and displays the kind of modulated but exact mastery of his material that is a model of directorial purpose and execution.

Even more impressive than his work behind the camera is Jordan’s script, which manages to combine spontaneity of action with the most careful planning. While “The Crying Game’s” plot unfolds with complete naturalness and ease, there is nothing casual about the way it was put together. Even its most unstudied moments and off-handed remarks almost magically come together and resonate with a precise purpose that only becomes apparent as the film progresses.

Like “Mona Lisa” before it, “The Crying Game” deals with unlikely relationships and unusual pairings. Its title comes from a 1960s romantic ballad whose lyric insists “I know what there is to know about the crying game.” The film’s characters, however, are less secure in their emotional knowledge, and when one of them says, with a measure of irony, “Who knows the mysteries of the human heart?” he is speaking for everyone.

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“The Crying Game” (Edwards South Coast Plaza Village in Costa Mesa, rated R for sexuality, strong violence and language) opens at a ragtag local carnival in Northern Ireland. Lurching around its scruffy rides and attractions is Jody (Forest Whitaker), a black British army sergeant way off duty, who finds himself very drunkenly attracted to Jude (Miranda Richardson), a blond, tarty type in a tight denim skirt.

Jude lures him to a deserted spot with promises of hanky-panky, but no sooner do they get comfortable than a pistol appears at Jody’s head. Adroitly set up, he now finds himself kidnaped by the Irish Republican Army in retaliation for the British capture of an IRA stalwart. Unless the British let their man go in three days, Jody is told by Maguire (Adrian Dunbar), the IRA will put a bullet in his head.

With that head covered by a stifling burlap sack and his hands pinioned behind him, Jody is shuffled off to a deserted greenhouse, where Fergus (Stephen Rea), an IRA soldier who has designs of his own on Jude, is assigned to guard him.

Alone together, Fergus and Jody warily exchange names and, despite the odd intimacy of their situation, with Fergus having to not only feed Jody but also help him with more private activities, they slowly begin to warm to each other. Talk is exchanged about sports, about Ireland, about racism, even about the event that brought them together.

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Jude, Jody says laughing now about his blowzy blond seductress, isn’t even my type. From the soldier’s wallet, Fergus fishes out a picture of the darkly beautiful, long-haired Dil (Jaye Davidson), a model-thin knockout who is the prisoner’s London girlfriend. “Now that’s my type,” says Jody with satisfaction, and Fergus can only nod in appreciation.

Though Jody is the captive and Fergus nominally his captor, Jordan and his adroit actors have made their interaction seem nowhere near that simple. Jody seems curiously confident, Fergus unsure, and something unknown seems to hang in the air just out of reach as a kind of brotherhood takes shape between them.

This undefined sense of things being not quite what they seem continues to be the keynote of “The Crying Game,” a picture that has the delicious ability of never letting on at any given moment what the next one will bring. The interaction of Jody, Fergus and Jude, not to mention Dil, does not end in that greenhouse, but aside from noting that nothing about how it develops is either predictable or false, all the rest must be left to the film itself to disclose.

Making that process thoroughly entertaining is the skill of the actors involved. Whitaker, best known for his starring performance in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” and currently on screen in “Consenting Adults,” has a self-confident warmth and a Cockney accent even Michael Caine would approve of. And Rea, a celebrated stage actor; the versatile Richardson, soon to be featured in “Damage”; and newcomer Jaye Davidson are all right on the money as well.

Suspenseful and emotionally complex, skillfully mixing politics with affairs of the heart, “The Crying Game” is something unexpected, a challenging new way to tell a very old story. When Fergus says, “Funny the way things go, never the way you expect them,” he is speaking for the audience as well as himself, and that is a cause not for crying but for celebration.

‘The Crying Game’ Forest Whitaker Jody Miranda Richardson Jude Stephen Rea Fergus Adrian Dunbar Maguire Dil Jaye Davidson

A Palace and Channel Four Films presentation, released by Miramax Films. Director Neil Jordan. Producer Stephen Wooley. Executive producer Nik Powell. Screenplay Neil Jordan. Cinematographer Ian Wilson. Editor Kant Pan. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music Anne Dudley. Production design Jim Clay. Running time:1 hour, 52 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (sexuality, strong violence, language).

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