Whether they're backing alternative presidential candidates or pinning AIDS- awareness ribbons on their Oscar-night tuxedos, the people who work in Hollywood remain, to a large degree, card-carrying liberals. Most Americans, of course, no longer find it easy to make clear-cut ethical choices: The complex economic and racial realities of the '90s have blurred our definitions of liberal and conservative, freedom and responsibility. In movies, however, the moral lines continue to be neatly drawn. And more and more, that neatness is starting to look like a cop-out.
You can get a fair reading of the current, rather flaccid state of Hollywood liberalism in three new films, each of which wears its noble intentions on its sleeve. In City of Joy, Patrick Swayze is a frustrated American surgeon who volunteers his services at an impoverished clinic in Calcutta, becoming a kind of Preppie Teresa. In Thunderheart, a slick young FBI agent (Val Kilmer), asked to investigate a murder on an Indian reservation, uncovers a rat's nest of conspiracy and ends up getting in touch with his Indian roots (a process that involves desert mirages that look suspiciously like acid flashbacks from The Doors). Finally, The Power of One sets us down in South Africa during the early years of apartheid, where we witness the first stirrings of black activist fervor as spearheaded by a white teenager so blond, handsome, and possessed of higher purpose he could practically be a poster child for the Hitler Youth.
City of Joy is easily the best of the three. It was directed by the British-born Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission), who visualizes the packed-to-the-gills urban squalor of Calcutta much as he did the genocidal prison camps of Cambodia as a mesmerizing canvas of apocalyptic Third World chaos. Like The Killing Fields, City of Joy has two protagonists: Max (Swayze), a cynical American expatriate who is drawn, á la Bogart, into taking compassionate action, and Hasari (Om Puri), an idealistic native who opens his own eyes to the horror of his country. Having lost his farm to money-lenders, Hasari brings his wife and children to Calcutta in hopes of landing a job. He does as a rickshaw runner but the city turns out to be a colorful inferno of hustlers and cutthroats.
As long as Joffé is showing us that city, staging anecdotes with con men and prostitutes or, memorably, a tireless Hasari wheeling his rickshaw through thigh-deep floods, the movie hits moments of raw, fractious power. The veteran Indian film actor Om Puri has a sly and delicate presence; his face, with its creases and pockmarks, is a tightly bunched knot of anxiety that can suddenly go bright with pleasure. Beneath the pungent surface detail of City of Joy, though, a wish-fulfillment melodrama is dying to get out. Swayze goes to work for the City of Joy clinic, which is run by an improbably cheery Irish medic (Pauline Collins, in an obnoxious performance). He does his good works (at one point delivering a baby in a leper colony), recovers his idealism, and helps Hasari stand up to a local thug known as the Godfather. The movie implies that India's epidemic of poverty is the result of a sheeplike strain in the character of its citizenry. There's emotional complexity to that suggestion for once, a Hollywood movie seems to refrain from enobling an ethnic hero but the issue of Hasari's servility is resolved in a phony, crowd- pleasing way. Long on atmosphere and short on the neorealist drama it promises, City of Joy immerses us in a landscape of unimaginable hardship and then says, in effect, ''Hey, we could solve this poverty thing if only people would start trying!''
The hokey, laborious Thunderheart would be little more than a leftover 1970s conspiracy thriller were it not for the novelty of its setting: a modern Indian reservation which, as the movie reveals, is by now a fancy word for slum. Ray Levoi (Kilmer), because he's one-quarter Sioux, is assigned to a homicide that may be connected to factional violence set off by the ''traditionalists,'' who advocate a radical return to ancient Indian ways. He gets to know the locals they range from an Americanized school teacher (Sheila Tousey) to an old medicine man (Chief Ted Thin Elk) who only pretends not to speak English and ends up rediscovering the Sioux in himself. What's silliest about this movie is that even as it's attempting to expose the ragtag poverty and injustice of modern Indian life, it reduces the essence of Native American culture to a patronizing melange of peace pipes, mysticism, and inscrutable tribal elders. The usually charismatic Kilmer gives a stolid performance in a blankly written role. The film's one redeeming feature is Graham Greene (from Dances With Wolves), who plays a wily tribal cop with impish humor, pursing his lips and dropping brute ironies like a Native American Joe Mantegna.
The Power of One's title is meant to refer to the strength of a South Africa in which whites and blacks join forces to overcome oppression. Yet you don't have to read very far between the lines to see that this story of a British orphan named P.K., who is played by three different actors at ages 7, 12, and 18, is about nothing so much as the power of one crusading white boy. Directed by John G. Avildsen, who made the first and last Rocky pictures and all three Karate Kids, The Power of One spends so much screen time reveling in the eloquence and bravery of its hero and depicting South Africa's blacks as an anonymous horde of victims that the film, in effect, becomes their victimizer. In the worst scene, a 12-year-old P.K. stands before an auditorium full of happy blacks and leads them in song. This isn't racial drama it's racial iconography, and of a peculiarly grotesque and naive sort. It's fittingly ironic that The Power of One has arrived just when apartheid seems on the verge of collapse. The movie memorializes a strain of Hollywood liberalism we can all live without the kind whose one true purpose is to celebrate itself. City of Joy: B- Thunderheart: C The Power of One: D