Mark Kermode - Sympathy for the devil

Film - Of two tales of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, it is the film made 30 years ago that thrills. By

The popularisation of pornography in the early 1970s created two unlikely cult heroes. One was Harry Reems, a passable comic actor who co-starred with Linda Lovelace in the genre-defining hit Deep Throat, and who later retired from porn to redirect his energies into religion and real estate. More notorious was John Holmes, a man blessed with a legendarily lengthy penis, whose fall from stardom became a paradigm for all that was self-destructive about the sex industry. Having enjoyed the high life as the world's premier porn stud in the 1970s, Holmes spiralled into drug addiction and delinquency, and then was arrested (but acquitted) for alleged involvement in a brutal massacre on Hollywood's Wonderland Avenue in 1981. He died of an Aids-related illness in 1988.

In the magnificent Boogie Nights, film-maker Paul Thomas Anderson transformed the bleak bones of Holmes's life story into a fabulous fairy tale of family values in which people behaved decently in even the most apparently indecent circumstances. Wonderland, which takes no such inventive liberties in its grim depiction of the unresolved murders, makes for far more depressing viewing. Whereas Anderson constantly found common ground between the extraordinary lives of his characters and the more everyday experiences of the audience, writer/director James Cox seems content merely to conjure a menagerie of unlikeable archetypes in whose violent fates it is hard to make any emotional investment. Instead, we watch with disheartening detachment as the mumbling, shambling, snorting, rutting lowlifes go about their variously disreputable business, teaching us only that all junkies are shitheads, all drug dealers murderers (probably), and that anyone who spends time with them will end up robbed, maimed or dead.

There is something perversely satisfying about watching fallen star Val Kilmer, who was so odious at the height of his fame, being reduced to playing a washed-up slimeball in what is, on one level, a low(er)-budget exploitation movie. Yet unlike Mickey Rourke, with his self-deprecating cameo in Spun (to which Wonderland bears thematic and stylistic comparison), Kilmer somehow manages to retain the same smug, self-adoring demeanour that made you want to punch him in such big-budget stinkers as The Saint and The Island of Doctor Moreau, but which is ironically appropriate here. Elsewhere, distractingly familiar faces include the kooky former Friends star Lisa Kudrow, who turns in an admirably understated performance as Holmes's long-suffering wife, Sharon; celebrity slapper Paris Hilton, who achieves on-screen insufferability without even opening her mouth in a fleeting cameo; and Eric Bogosian, who makes drug lord Eddie "The Arab" Nash sound disconcertingly like Mohamed Al Fayed on acid. Contrast Bogosian's pantomime prattlings with the unexpected menace of Alfred Molina's similar role in Boogie Nights, and you begin to appreciate how seriously Wonderland mishandles the dramatic potential of its material.

While the soundtrack includes a jukebox of infectious hits by everyone from T-Rex and Terry Reid to The Cars and Duran Duran, it rarely hits the high notes necessary to transform this turgid reality into transcendent art. Worse still, the overall visual style of the film - all unnecessary jumps, gimmicky cuts and baffling text - serves to obfuscate the narrative, rather than illuminate it.

Compare such distractions with the superbly creative structure of the re-released Performance, another tale of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll which predates Wonderland by more than 30 years, but which still looks far more modern, innovative and shockingly funky. James Fox stars as the renegade gangster who holes up in the bohemian flat of a fading rocker, Mick Jagger, unearthing uncomfortable parallels between their respective outlaw lifestyles. Originally shunned by its distributors (who thought it was incoherent filth) and snipped by the censors (who understood it well enough to be upset by its sadomasochism and perversity), Performance is now rightly considered a milestone of British cinema, an accolade due in no small part to the work of the editor Frank Mazzola, whose innovative, jazz-influenced cross-cutting perfectly served (and perhaps saved) the film. Co-directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg get right under the skin of their cast, Fox allegedly discovering such darkness within the role of Chas that he renounced acting for a decade to dedicate his life to God.

As for the usually awful Jagger, Performance captures the fey Mephistophelean pageantry that once made him such an entrancing presence on stage, if not on screen. If only Wonderland had invoked half as much sympathy for its devils.