OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE R, 1987, closed captioned, 112 minutes, Touchstone, $89.95.
Bette Midler and Shelley Long match wits with the CIA, the KGB and the two-timing man who done 'em wrong in this sassy, side-splitting she-thriller written by the up-and-coming Leslie Dixon. Veteran director Arthur Hiller recalls his work in "The In-Laws" as he guides this giddy duo through a raunchy cross-country comedy. Midler and Long, full of vinegary chemistry, are instant enemies suddenly united in their quest for Peter Coyote, as the cloak-and-dagger Casanova who had seemed to each like the perfect man. The women meet and immediately loathe each other in an acting class conducted by a famous Soviet defector. Long plays an insufferable Ivy Leaguer whose grand pretensions irk Midler's down-to-earthy floozy, whose last starring role was in "Ninja Vixen." The arch adversaries become unlikely allies, and finally fast friends, as they track the wily Coyote from Manhattan to the dangerous mesas of New Mexico. Midler suffers a broken fingernail, but nevertheless prevails. And Long's ballet lessons come in handy when she's jumping over desert gorges. George Carlin is the only false note as a burned-out hippie who leads a small tribe of American Indians to the heroines' rescue.
THE HANOI HILTON R, 1987, 126 minutes, Warner Home Video, $79.95.
To mention that Lionel Chetwynd's "Hanoi Hilton" has an agenda is a little like saying that Lincoln had a beard; it's not exactly news. But that's just the point. Chetwynd has things to get off his chest, things of import to the nation. And if making movies doesn't work, doesn't get us thinking right, he's going door to door. The movie is about the collective experience of a group of American soldiers confined to Hao Lo prison in Hanoi. The approach is day by day; in scene after scene, we're subjected to the indignities of prison life, of maggoty food, filthy conditions, cruel and inhuman treatment. If you're just sick and tired of movies that project a balanced picture of the enemy and long for the good ole days of Yellow Menace propaganda, or if your idea of fun is watching actors in death-pallor makeup suffer nobly the horror of having audiences see them with bad haircuts and green gunk all over their teeth, then have I got a tape for you. We can look at the movie, which features Michael Moriarty and Jeffrey Jones, in genre terms, in which case it's like "The Great Escape" for agoraphobics. Of course, all of our best wishes are with the American MIAs and POWs, many of whom, the movie suggests, are in camps similar to this one. But it's hard to wish Chetwynd well. He's a danger to unformed minds. And I'm not talking about the little ones.
-- Hal Hinson
ISHTAR PG-13, 1987, 107 minutes, RCA/Columbia Home Video, $89.95.
A mammoth dud, a castastrophe, a huge floundering stinker of biblical proportions -- that was the word circulating around "Ishtar" before it came out. In fact, the movie wasn't nearly so grand an achievement. "Ishtar" doesn't attempt enough to be considered a magnificent failure. It's something far less substantial; it's piddling -- a hangdog little comedy with not enough laughs. A postmodern romp in the Hope and Crosby manner, "Ishtar" wants to be perceived as modest and unassuming (a profoundly odd thing for a $40 million movie to want). It's scaled large, with teeming extras, helicopters and vast desert landscapes stretching out to the horizon, but it stands there on our doorstep, this white elephant of a movie, blushing like a self-conscious schoolboy embarrassed by his size. It doesn't have the heart to be big; its spirit rattles around inside it like a marble in an oil drum. The movie stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, and it's a pretty grim spectacle watching these two middle-aged stars try to outcute each other. Director Elaine May has one of the most distinctive voices as a writer of anyone working in film, and when you hear it in "Ishtar" it's a cherishable, divinely loopy, out-there kind of sound. But you only hear it intermittently, and then through staticky channels.
-- Hal Hinson
RED HEADED STRANGER R, 1987, 109 minutes, Charter, $79.95.
For a movie based on a song and starring Willie Nelson, there's surprisingly little music in this very literal adapation by director Bill Witliff of Nelson's breakthrough concept album. A Western morality play about love, bitter betrayal and ultimate redemption, it casts Nelson as the idealistic preacher driven to murder by his wife's infidelity, and his finally coming to terms with his deeds. There's also a corollary plot about Nelson standing up to the frontier town's bullying family, which has a stranglehold on the only water in 50 miles (which may be why the entire town comes across as mentally sunstruck). Wherever it was shot, "Red Headed Stranger" does a fine job of evoking the arid expanse of the old West and much of it is beautiful to look at, with long, lingering camera shots and picturesque tableaux. However, things move so slowly you won't care, and just about everyone's motivation is a little suspect and unfocused. Nelson looks great but underplays everything to the hilt. Morgan Fairchild looks great, validates her boredom as the preacher's wife and seems thankful to get killed halfway through. Katharine Ross eventually rekindles Nelson's flame. As usual, character actor R.G. Armstrong stands whiskered head and shoulders above the pack. Despite all its flaws, "Red Headed Stranger" is intriguing in the same way that "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is, feeling of the period rather than about it.
-- Richard Harrington
THE WHISTLE BLOWER R, 1987, 104 minutes, Nelson Entertainment, $79.95.
Don't people in England have basement workshops to putter around in or old jalopies out in the garage that they work on in their spare time? Hobbies -- that's what the British need. And then maybe they'd knock off all this spy stuff. "The Whistle Blower" stars Michael Caine, and it's about as routine an espionage thriller as you're likely to find. You know the details of this kind of thing -- subdued tension, hushed, behind-the-hand conversations, people walking around in Wellingtons and toting brollies. At GCHQ Cheltenham, home base of the British Intelligence force, the atmosphere is thick and dodgy. The Dodgson case, in which an employe (Bill Wallis) was found guilty of spying for the Soviets, has prompted a new spirit of paranoia. For Bob (Nigel Havers), a brilliant young linguist specializing in Russian, the aftermath of this affair, where employes are questioned regularly about their activities and encouraged to rat on one another, only caps a sense of growing cynicism about the moral distinctions between "us" and "them." Recent events have radicalized him, and at 28, he wants to leave the world of cloak-'n'-dagger snooping. This, it seems, is about as easy as dropping out of the Mafia. Directed by Simon Langston, the movie is essentially about the lengths to which the world of covert activity will go to protect itself and its secrets. But Langston, who shot "Smiley's People" for the BBC and should feel comfortable in this densely shrouded milieu, is unable to give this underground society any substance or reality. Up to a point, this spy-versus-spy maze is intelligently, if not thrillingly, laid out. But Langston can't seem to tighten the screws when they need to be tightened. And the events don't have any cumulative effect; nothing builds. Caine, as Bob's father, does manage some terrific moments, but ultimately his performance can't transcend the material.
-- Hal Hinson