EVERY now and then a movie trend materializes right before your eyes, and then it dribbles away again with equal suddenness.Just last year, a whole batch of gangster movies showed up almost simultaneously. One of these, Martin Scorsese's ambitious "GoodFellas," was excellent. Others, less imposing but still noteworthy, included "The Krays," a Peter Medak film about murderous London twins, and "Miller's Crossing," a tale of vengeance and betrayal by Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking team whose very different "Barton Fink" opened this week. Unfortunately, the mobster momentum of 1990 has continued feebly into the current season. Last year's pyrotechnics have dwindled to the idiotic posing of "Mobsters" and the gender-reversed macho of "V. I. Warshawski," both of which lack any hint of the energy and inventiveness that distinguished their recent predecessors. After an advance screening of "Mobsters" not long ago, a critic who saw it with me said it was like watching "The Godfather" performed by the senior class. He's right. The gimmick or "high concept" of the picture, which was directed by former TV commercial-maker Michael Karbelnikoff, is to show four notorious American crooks at the beginning of their criminal careers. We meet them when they're merely young thugs; we watch them form a partnership; we see them consolidate their activities without falling p rey to Mafia families that are ferociously jealous of their turf. This exercise in grim but genuine Americana might have been instructive, or at least entertaining, if it had been made with the skill and liveliness found in most worthwhile Hollywood productions. But it isn't. The acting is clunky, the camera work is ungainly, the screenplay is trite. And the most potentially revealing angle of the story, focusing on the ethnic rivalry between Italian-Americans like Lucky Luciano and Jewish Americans like Meyer Lansky, gets only a glancing and superficial treatment. Most appalling of all is the ending, when the mobsters have a big meeting and decide to end their internecine rivalries - meaning that henceforth they'll stop murdering, pillaging, and terrorizing one another, and limit their activity to murdering, pillaging, and terrorizing ordinary people like you and me. Then the four heroes clink their glasses in a toast to friendship, smiling sweetly at each other. And we're supposed to leave the theater with a warm feeling about this!"V. I. Warshawski," directed by Jeff Kanew and based on some popular novels by Sara Peretsky, stars Kathleen Turner as a hard-boiled private investigator who happens to be a woman. This particular "high concept" places the picture not only in the cops-and-robbers category of "Mobsters" but also in the recently crowded genre of woman-in-control movies, ranging from "Thelma & Louise" to most of "The Silence of the Lambs" and parts of "Sleeping With the Enemy" and "Mortal Thoughts." There's more to feminist filmmaking than simply turning conventional gender functions on their heads, however. "V. I. Warshawski" sheds little new light on the ability of women to fill traditionally male roles; it merely contends that women can give and take punches as eagerly as their male counterparts have done in past Hollywood potboilers. Giving a hard nose, quick fists, and a foul mouth to a woman does little to advance the cause of equality between the sexes. From this perspective, as from every ot her one I can think of, "V. I. Warshawski" is a sadly missed opportunity.
Still, the Hollywood studios continue to plug away at the mob-movie genre. "Bugsy," about the same Benny "Bugsy" Siegel who's featured in "Mobsters," is due in theaters soon. And the fall season will join Dustin Hoffman with Dutch Schultz's gang in "Billy Bathgate," a much-awaited production based on E. L. Doctorow's lively but oddly commonplace novel about New York's underworld during the Depression years. Will these pictures give the gangster trend new life, or send it to the bottom of the charts with a cement overcoat on its bullet-ridden carcass? Moviegoers will know in the next few weeks. * Mobsters" is rated * for violence and language. "V. I. Warshawski" is rated * for language and violence.