NEW YORK — 'DEAD AGAIN" starts with a ruckus. In the first five minutes there's a murder, a nightmare, and a great deal of screaming - all of it accompanied by that old suspense-movie standby, the thunderstorm.After this beginning, the pace can't help slackening a little as the movie goes along. But it never slows enough to let the audience think much about what it all means - or, for that matter, whether it all makes sense. "Dead Again" is a slam-bang entertainment that cares less about information or logic than about speed and energy. Not to mention a large number of cinematic in-jokes, mostly referring to "Citizen Kane" and various Alfred Hitchcock classics, including "Dial for Murder" (those deadly scisso rs!) and the magnificent "Vertigo." None of this would be surprising if "Dead Again" came from one of the many Hollywood directors who churn out slam-bang entertainments with all-too-dependable regularity. But instead, it's the work of British aesthete Kenneth Branagh, who recently gave us "Henry V," the most celebrated Shakespeare movie in ages. It's obvious that Mr. Branagh wanted to prove his versatility by following his "prestige" project with something different, and something more different than "Dead Again" is hard to imagine. It has a contemporary setting, a murder-mystery plot, scenes that leapfrog between comedy and violence, and two flashy roles for Branagh to play - one a distinguished musician, the other a Los Angeles private eye with a hard nose and a foul mouth. The private eye is the main character, trying to help a young woman who's suffering from total amnesia, and also from bad dreams reflecting what appears to be a grisly crime buried in her forgotten past. Helped by a hypnotist, our hero links his frightened client with a notorious event that occurred decades earlier: the murder of a society woman by her jealous husband, a renowned orchestra conductor. Are the '90s characters - the detective and his client - about to relive the horrible events that overtook their '40s counterparts, the musician and his wife? It certainly seems that way, especially since both couples are played by the same performers. But it's not clear that the conductor really killed his spouse, or that the hypnotist is really as innocent and uninvolved as he appears. Although it takes place mainly in the present day, the story of "Dead Again" jumps to the '40s so often (and so abruptly) that Branagh and his collaborators have trouble channeling the action into a seamless flow. The picture relies far too heavily on reaction shots - showing a character grin, groan, or giggle so we'll be cued to grin, groan, or giggle when Branagh wants us to. As the plot becomes more complicated, it also becomes more hectic and even confused. Branagh is interested more in bombarding us with ironies and surprises than in probing the personalities and emotions of the characters. Fortunately, some of those ironies and surprises are impressively handled. The best of them crop up in scenes with the hypnotist, who developed his specialty - helping people regress to experiences they've had in past lifetimes - less to explore the unknown than to get tips on interesting antiques that he can peddle in his musty furniture store. Wittily played by Derek Jacobi, he's the backbone of the story and the most entertaining character in it, providing enough chuckles to carry the film over its ma ny ragged spots. The other performers are more solid than inspired: Emma Thompson as the amnesiac and the wife, Andy Garcia as a hard-boiled journalist involved with the '40s murder case, Hanna Schygulla in the too-small role of a household servant, Robin Williams as a demented psychiatrist, and Branagh himself as the detective and the musician. They barge through their scenes with a breakneck energy that keeps the movie jumping, but leaves little room for subtle ideas or feelings to develop. Ditto for the filmmakers: director Branagh, screenwriter Scott Frank, editor Peter E. Berger, composer Patrick Doyle (whose music perfectly matches the mood of the production), and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, who has done a capable job of swinging between elegant black-and-white for the '40s sections and snazzy color for the contemporary material. Their efforts add up to a diverting show that unfortunately values cleverness over thoughtfulness, wisecracks over wisdom. It's fun, but surely Branag h is capable of giving us something deeper, bolder, and more enduring.
"Dead Again" is rated R, reflecting vulgar language and violence.