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Subjects Hollywood almost forgot

Good news. Just when it seemed that Hollywood might never give us another movie worth looking at -- that mediocrity and vulgarity had taken over forever -- real life has reappeared on the screen.

I'm not talking about masterpieces, or even "major films." But two current offerings, The Great Santini and My Bodyguard, have enough quiet strength and sensitivity to remind us what moviegoing is supposed to be all about.

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"The Great Santini" is not, as its title might suggest, the story of a magician or an ethnic politician. Rather, it is that rarity among today's movies, a domestic drama. The main character, played by the marvelous Robert Duvall, is a bullish Marine colonel named Bull Meechum. The title of the film comes from his nickname, inspired by his talents as a prankster (which lend the picture most of its moments of PG tastelessness).

Much of the movie focuses on Meechum's inner contradictions. He is a dedicated marine and a devoted father. Yet he has a strong streak of irresponsibility, visible in his elaborate practical jokes and bouts of hard drinking. He runs his home as if it were a barracks, complete with a scaled-down code of military discipline. Back at the base, however, he is regarded as a disgrace to the corps -- a besotted vulgarian who would be instantly discharged if not for his ability as a flier.

Hollywood has given us lots of stories about neurotic military men. "The Great Santini" distinguishes itself by exploring its protagonist mainly in the context of his family. Though Meechum loves his wife and children, he has odd ways of showing it. They love him back, but it can be difficult. How do you deal with a dad who cheerfully tells his youngsters they should be "chewing nails when other kids are still eating cotton candy"? Clearly, this man has a lot to learn about the difference between Marine recruits and his own wide-eyed adolescents, who need guidance of a more subtle sort than macho epigrams can provide.

The brunt of Meechum's military obsessiveness falls on his oldest son, Ben. He is a bright and capable young man, a fact that both pleases and frightens his father. Bull basks in his son's accomplishments, but feels threatened by his growing manhood. Not realizing what he is doing, he even steers the boy toward some of his own vices -- encouraging him to carouse on his 18th birthday, for example. The story reaches a climax when Ben finds himself torn between his father's gung-ho "code" and his own sense of ethical behavior. And the situation begins to resolve when Ben realizes that his father's toughness is just a mask for a profound sense of inner insecurity.

"The Great Santini" would be a stronger movie if it were less ambitious. It runs on much too long, and near the end it strains its modest framework by putting the Meechum family in a tragic situation that might well have been dispensed with. It also diverts attention from its main theme with a busy subplot about Ben's friendship with a black youth who comes into conflict with the local bigots. This digression gives Ben an opportunity to show his courage and maturity, but it doesn't quite fit with the rest of the movie. The film also contains outbursts of vulgarity that some viewers will find patently offensive.

Still, "The Great Santini" deserves praise for its willingness to look long, hard, and seriously at a realistic family situation -- a willingness too rarely found at a time when most films are obsessed with futile fantasies. The pains of growing up, the joys of family life, the challenges of being a parent or an offspring or a sibling: These are among the inexhaustible subjects of storytelling, and it's a pity Hollywood has so often overlooked them in recent years.

Even now, it's not always easy to "sell" these subjects; "The Great Santini" has bounced around the movie circuit for months, without managing to find its audience. Now, however, it has opened a terrifically successful New York engagement, which should help it gather momentum for national success. That success is overdue.

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"My Bodyguard" is another low-key look at ordinary folks in almost-ordinary situations. The main character is a 10th-grader named Clifford, who has just moved from a sheltered prep school to a rough-and-tumble public school in a big city. He promptly meets up with the local extortionist -- a big kid who demands "protection" payments taken from lunch money. Our hero decides to defy this crook by hiring another pupil to defend him.

Gradually, the film shifts its focus from Clifford to his employee, a deeply troubled boy with an unhappy family background. As Clifford does, we learn to like this "bodyguard" as we learn to understand him. And we get the pleasure of watching Clifford's friendship lure this emotionally disturbed teen-ager from the shell he has laboriously built around his personality.

"My Bodyguard" takes some of its cues from other recent films. Its teen-age portraits recall "Breaking Away," for example, while its fistfight finale is like a mini-"Rocky." Some of its ideas are stale, some of its language is nasty, some of its twists are contrived. And it contains a useless subplot that has no purpose other than worming Ruth Gordon into the movie.

Yet "My Bodyguard" paints the most realistic picture of high-school society I've seen in years, getting all sorts of adolescent personalities (and a teacher or two) down pat. And it's a friendly film that's built on affection, not affectation. It marks a promising directorial debut for erstwhile producer Tony Bill, and offers a bit more hope that Hollywood may be finding its way back to movies about the world all of us -- even moviemakers -- have to share.

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