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THE QUEST PG-13, 1996, 95 minutes, MCA-Universal Home Video.

"The Quest" marks Jean-Claude Van Damme's return to the kind of happy-go-kicky action film that established him as a martial-arts favorite. It's also his surprisingly assured first-time directorial effort. Van Damme clearly has a gift for heroic confrontations and sweeping, exotic vistas. The film begins in New York in 1925, where Chris Dubois (Van Damme), the adult leader of a gang of Dickensian ragamuffins, steals away on a freighter to escape a police dragnet. The stowaway is then imprisoned by gunrunners, rescued by an aristocratic pirate, Lord Edgar Dobbs (rakish Roger Moore), and sold into servitude on Muay Thai, a Pacific island full of kick-boxers.

Dubois soon discovers he's a natural Muay Thai fighter himself and goes into training with master Khao (Aki Aleong). Concurrently, 16 champion fighters from around the world are issued secret invitations to the Lost City of Tibet, site of the Ghan-gheng, a winner-takes-all rumble in which the reward is major boasting rights plus a huge golden dragon. Once the fighting begins, Van Damme constructs a set of encounters that are consistently fast, furious and entertaining. The trappings are familiar, but the 13 battles involve 16 distinct nationalities and almost as many martial-arts variants.

-- Richard Harrington/Washington Post
FLIPPER 1996, PG, 95 minutes, MCA/Universal Home Video.

For those who don't remember the television series from the '60s, Flipper was Lassie with a blowhole -- an underwater hero who rescued his human friends from life-threatening danger week after week. "Flipper," the movie, is a passable family entertainment with essentially the same modus operandi, but with an environmentalist message: Don't mess with Mother Nature.

Elijah Wood stars as Sandy, a 14-year-old city boy who is sent to a remote fishing village to spend the summer with his crusty uncle Porter (Paul Hogan). At first, all Sandy wants to do is get out of there and find his way to a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert.

But three unforeseen factors conspire against his escape: a hurricane, a playful orphaned dolphin and a cute blond. Jonathan Banks plays the eco-villain -- an evil toxic-waste dumper -- with oily relish, but he, too, is upstaged by his underwater counterpart, a nasty-looking hammerhead shark named Scar. When this big fella cruises into camera range, your blood runs cold.

-- Hal Hinson/Washington Post
FARGO R, 1996, 98 minutes, Polygram Video.

Despite the title, the Coen brothers' gleefully twisted crimedy takes place in their native Minnesota, where descendants of Scandinavian pioneers face adversity with stoicism, smorgasbord and strong black coffee. The story begins in a seedy North Dakota saloon, where a bumbling car salesman (William H. Macy) hires two dull-witted oafs to kidnap his wife -- he plans to pay off the kidnappers and his many debts with the ransom he collects from his wife's wealthy but tightfisted father.

The scheme goes awry when the crooks -- yappy, Chihuahua-faced Carl (Steve Buscemi) and lumpen, pancake-loving Gaer (Peter Stormare) -- shoot down a state trooper and two innocent passers-by on the outskirts of snow-blanketed Brainerd, Minn. The triple murder falls under the jurisdiction of Brainerd's chipper, pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the most hilarious, wholly feminine heroine since Thelma or Louise.

Allegedly based on a true story, "Fargo" bears an uncanny resemblance to the Coens' 1984 debut, "Blood Simple."

-- Rita Kempley/Washington Post


(1) Oliver and Company (Disney). (2) The Wizard of Oz (MGM-UA). (3) Braveheart (Paramount). (4) Cops: Too Hot for TV! (MVP). (5) Cops: Caught in the Act (MVP). (6) Aladdin and the King of Thieves (Disney). (7) The Sound of Music (Fox). (8) The Beatles Anthology (Capitol). (9) Twister (Warner). (10) The X-Files: Darkness Falls-The Erlenmeyer Flask (Fox).

(1) The Birdcage (MGM-UA). (2) The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Fox). (3) Executive Decision (Warner). (4) Up Close and Personal (Touchstone). (5) From Dusk Till Dawn (Miramax). (6) Sgt. Bilko (MCA-Universal). (7) Mulholland Falls (MGM-UA). (8) The Quest (MCA-Universal). (9) 12 Monkeys (MCA-Universal). (10) The Substitute (Live).

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