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Tom Cruise's latest character in a boozy setting

``Cocktail'' is like a sports movie in some ways. It reminded me of ``Bull Durham'' and other pictures where a seasoned veteran helps a rookie break into the game and become a star. Only in ``Cocktail'' the ``sport'' is bartending. These guys don't just pour drinks. They fling their bottles into the air, flipping them over and over, and then catch them deftly so the liquor flows with split-second timing. They handle glasses and other paraphernalia with equally showy moves, and in one scene they do it together, with a kind of woozy choreography.

I consider this not just a stupid movie but an irresponsible one. Alcoholism is a serious problem, in the United States and other places where this film is likely to be shown.

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``Cocktail'' doesn't just show a lot of drinking as the backdrop to a story, moreover. It celebrates the whole barroom scene, as if a night (or a week or a year) of swilling liquor were a wholesome pastime. If some other drug were treated this way in a movie, lots of outraged people - including parents and politicians - would be up in arms. But it's only alcohol, the reasoning seems to go, so it's all harmless fun.

``Cocktail'' does have a story, but it doesn't offer any redeeming social value. Teen heartthrob Tom Cruise plays a young man who wants to succeed, but only on his own terms. He tries college for a little while, but it doesn't work out, especially when he calls his professor (to his face) a tired old failure who couldn't hack it in the ``real world.''

Since intellectual achievement is obviously beneath him, our hero takes on a real challenge: tending bar in a saloon on Manhattan's ritzy Upper East Side. There he becomes the prot'eg'e of a slick bartender who regards all customers as suckers and all women - especially the ones with money - as objects to be chased after and subdued.

The two bartenders become friends, then enemies, then friends again. Finally the heartless one meets a sad fate, while the less-heartless one (Mr. Cruise's character, of course) settles down with the millionairess of his dreams. We know he's noble, because even when he marries into a rich family he's content to disdain his father-in-law's money and stay faithfully with the bartending business.

``Cocktail'' was directed by Roger Donaldson, the New Zealander who made the first-rate thriller ``No Way Out'' last year. He blows it this time; Cruise doesn't even try to act, and the other stars (Bryan Brown and Elisabeth Shue) give one-note performances.

Sorry for the bad news, but this is one ``Cocktail'' you can pour straight down the drain.

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