THE FORMULA -- AMC Academy, Avalon 2, K-B Cerberus, K-B Georgetown Square, K-B Silver, NTI Landover Mall, NTI State, Roth's Americana, Roth's Mount Vernon and Roth's Quince Orchard

The Hollywood blitz is one of the more recent Christmas traditions. This year the celluloid studios sent us an even dozen -- the Twelve Flicks of Christmas, you might say -- but two of them arrived (as some Christmas cards do) just too late to respond to. Lately Marlon Brando has been in the habit of dropping in briefly on films, using up large portions of their budgets with his wages, and leaving them burdened with leaden scenes. As in "Superman" and "Apocalpse Now," his role in "The Formula" is brief. But unlike those, it's worth whatever they paid him.

This is Brando the inventive actor, rather than Brando the pompous presence. He plays an internationally powerful oil manipulator, for whom he has amusingly worked up a quiet, fusty character who carefully smoothes gray sidelocks over a bald head, pats the vest of his three-piece suit, leans in toward people with the ear that has the hearing aid, talks patiently through his nose, and gently rules the world while submitting to backtalk from a servant over the amount of chlorine his swimming pool should contain.

When a subordinate talks of the public's blaming gas price hikes on the Arabs, he is reason itself as he says professorially, "Arthur, you're missing the point. We are the Arabs."

This performance is the high point in an otherwise over-complicated murder-intrigue picture in which George C. Scott, by contrast, drags tiredly through the leading role of police investigator.

Beginning with a World War II scene, in German with subtitles, it gets to English, los Angeles and terrorism by way of the marketplace. The formula is for making synthetic fuel. But htis has long been suppressed by the big oil conspiracy, which, after a wartime working partnership between the American business community and the Thid Reich, has been building steadily to reach its masterstroke, the line at the American gas station. A variety of other modern phenomena, such as Chilean assassinations. Haitian coccaine traffic, German guilt complexes and Bel Air playboys found dead in bed, are merely sidelines of this situation.

It would all seem pointlessly paranoid -- until Brando explains it.