WHEN WIM WENDERS released "Wings of Desire" in 1988, it marked the end of an aesthetic era. Rather than celebrate entropy and impending apocalypse -- the touchstones of the '80s avant-garde -- West Germany's high priest of cinematic anomie turned his back on nihilism altogether. Amid the hipster wilderness of late-Cold War Berlin, he found angels, the tragic and tender shards of history and a rapturously tender parable of love. To some extent, the film was a brilliant artistic premonition of the dramatic changes that would sweep across Europe in ensuing years. Certainly the playing of "Ode to Joy" at the Brandenburg Gate or Boris Yeltsin's stand atop a tank outside the Russian White House were moments worthy of the liberatory imagination Wenders' movie celebrated.
Ironically enough, Wenders found himself marooned in the new Europe, in an almost comical inversion of the way an earlier generation of German artists had been uprooted by the rise of Nazism. The divided and angst-ridden Germany of Wenders' youth, the crucible of his art, now seems nearly as distant and romantic as the Weimar Republic. If his new film, "The End of Violence," is by far his best work since "Wings of Desire," that says almost nothing. The film is a muddled, sentimental Euro-American hash, redeemed here and there from its fatal purposelessness by a few moments that remind us we're in the presence of a genuine cinematic visionary.
Wenders' '90s dilemma apparently stems from his belief that, with "Wings," he committed himself to a cinema of optimism, a search for the way forward. But where is hope to be found in the global neoliberal triumph, in the spread of Pizza Huts and accounting firms from Galicia to the Sea of Okhotsk? No answers were offered by the unthinkably awful "Until the End of the World" (1991), a doofus fashion-kitten travelogue with all the exotic languor, non-sequitur dialogue and plot impenetrability of a three-hour Anne Klein commercial. "Faraway, So Close!" (1993), although less noxious, was ultimately a sad, goofy attempt to revisit the setting and themes of "Wings," surely a movie that needed no sequel.
Although "The End of Violence" is far from an unqualified success, it at least shows signs of a struggle, signs that the collapse of the Berlin Wall did not crush Wenders' spirit. For one thing, he has reinvented himself, half-convincingly, as an American mainstream filmmaker. Perhaps this is the logical fulfillment of Wenders' lifelong obsession with America and its movies; nonetheless, it comes as something of a surprise. The familiar overprocessed black-and-white film and gauzy color filters have been packed away, and cinematographer Pascal Rabaud instead supplies the studied, pseudo-natural richness of contemporary Hollywood. Similarly, the cast consists of conventional A-minus stars -- Bill Pullman, Andie MacDowell, Gabriel Byrne -- as well as unknowns, with nary a quirky Falk/Hopper character actor in sight. (Longtime Wenders idol Sam Fuller does appear briefly; I don't know whether he is senile or just acts it, but either way it's upsetting and completely irrelevant.)
This American style is clearly self-conscious, since Nicholas Klein's script concerns a sharklike Hollywood producer named Mike Max (Pullman), who is making a gorily realistic action picture called "Violence," and acerbically remarks in an early voice-over that "paranoia is our No. 1 export." When Mike's enervated wife, Paige (MacDowell), calls him on his poolside cell phone -- from about 100 yards away -- to announce she's leaving him and heading to Guatemala, he sneers, "You have a yearning for squalor?"
Obviously this is a movieland asshole in need of spiritual redemption, and it arrives on cue when Mike survives a bungled carjacking and, for some reason that the plot never quite explains, goes underground to live incognito with a Latino gardener's family. In the course of this odyssey, he will learn such homiletic truths as "There are no enemies or strangers, only a strange world," and (no kidding) "You can't go home again." Wenders crafts some marvelous scenes of wordless, spectral wonder when Mike, after his disappearance, haunts Paige like a ghost in their sprawling Malibu house. And there is acute wit in the film's observation that to "become" Latino in L.A. is to become invisible to ruling-class eyes. But as an American parable of race, responsibility and power, "The End of Violence" is labored and unoriginal; one wonders if Wenders realizes how close he comes here to Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon."
There are flashes of another, better movie in the parallel plot involving Ray (Byrne), a disillusioned government scientist involved in setting up an ultra-high-tech surveillance system that promises to keep every square inch of L.A. under near-constant scrutiny. As Ray's sinister boss tells him, it could mean "the end of violence as we know it." An early scene in which Ray, alone in the Griffith Park Observatory, sees the power of this system demonstrated on the video monitors around him provides a chilling echo of the opening sequence in "Wings of Desire," where the angels travel through Berlin, seeing, hearing and feeling the lives of its people. But the connection between this Big Brother nightmare and the violent event that catapults Mike into a new life remains allusive and fundamentally obscure, and the romantic subplot involving an all-American cop (Loren Dean) and a stuntwoman (Traci Lind) who each hold pieces of the puzzle never adds up to much.
The only reason to see "The End of Violence" lies in its carefully polished look and feel -- augmented by a wonderful score from roots-music master Ry Cooder -- rather than Klein's sophomoric script. (I'm not even going to discuss the execrable poetry scenes.) Wenders' expert handling of Pullman and MacDowell indicates that he knows how to draw something like meaning from the affectless visages of stars. If he wants to make real Hollywood movies, rather than bewildering imitations like this one, he can surely find work doing so. But the most revealing moment in "The End of Violence," no doubt intended as satire, can also be read as tragedy: Zoltan (Udo Kier), the middle-aged director of Mike's film, turns away from a conversation with a cop muttering to himself, "Why do I make films in America? I should have stayed in Europe." As both Zoltan and his creator are well aware, the Europe where they began their careers no longer exists.