IF YOU CAN put the book behind you and take the film as it is, ''Bonfire of the Vanities'' is a pleasant surprise.
It's a surprise because it comes to us on a float of negativism. Some movies get that treatment. Word sneaks out that the test screenings have been bad, and the movie is damned thereon.
''Bonfire'' has been getting that kind of treatment. Some critics have been calling it ''Bombfire of the Vanities.''
Well, it is far from that. It is also a good distance from the book. The movie script (by Michael Cristofer) uses all the principal plot developments but takes a decidedly different approach to the material. The book had little if any humor in it. The movie has a great deal of humor in it, humor born of cynicism and irony.
''Bonfire of the Vanities'' is a film that says it all about the contemporary human condition, the me-first people, the people who abuse, use and take what they want. This is a movie about special-interest groups, about politicians and others who don't hesitate to use a situation to their advantage, regardless of how many people they may hurt.
You couldn't have made this kind of film in the '30s or '40s. You can today, because that's the way it is.
Tom Hanks is Sherman McCoy, a ''Master of the Universe,'' a WASP, a Wall Street man who is enjoying the good life, home, wife, child and mistress. He and his mistress are returning from the airport when they make the wrong turn and run into two young black men. When the young men threaten the couple, the man and woman drive off, she at the wheel. When they do take off, they hit one of the men, who ends up in the hospital.
The injured boy saw the first two letters of the license plate, knew it was a Mercedes that hit him and gave that information to his mother, who passed it on to the police.
In time, the law closes in on the Wall Street man, whose life is just about ruined by all that follows, mainly because the woman he was with will not admit she was driving the car.
Instead, she finds a new lover and hops off to Italy, leaving the broker holding the bag.
Some of the novel is missing, but most of it is there, including the unruly behavior of the people attending the trial. The judge is played by Morgan Freeman, who has the last say in court, bringing the film to its conclusion, which is so much more satisfying than that of the book, which really had no ending.
The ending of the film is completely in keeping with the tone of the movie. It is in no way jarring.
When it was announced that Hanks was going to play the role of the broker, there was sneering. Most people who read the book immediately saw William Hurt in the role. Hurt is the quintessential WASP, they said. No one else will do. Well, that might have been smart casting if the film had been done with more seriousness, but it wasn't. It was done the way it should be done, with comic observation, and under the circumstances, Hanks was the right man for the role.
Bruce Willis plays the reporter. In the book, he is English. In the movie, he is American. In the film, the newsman is really a subsidiary character, but Willis probably knew that going in. He was well paid for his work.
Melanie Griffith is the bimbo who is married to a wealthy man and plays around with others. Her Maria (dark haired in the book) is straight out of Tennessee Williams. She also brings Marilyn Monroe to mind, particularly when she uses malapropisms.
Initially, she is irritating, seemingly off key. In no time, however, she is on key, in line with the way this film is going.
Kim Cattrall is wife to McCoy, Saul Rubinek is an assistant district attorney, John Hancock is the Reverend Bacon, who uses the incident to his advantage, Alan King is Maria's husband, and Donald Moffat is Sherman's father, a man who finds it difficult to express affection for his son but does so in one or the warmer scenes in this film.
An unbilled F. Murray Abraham is the manipulative district attorney who wants to run for mayor and knows that if he ''gets the WASP,'' it will make him look better to the minorities in the city.
Brian De Palma directed ''Bonfire of the Vanities.'' He seemed, on first announcement, the wrong man for the job, but that impression doesn't hold. De Palma proves with ''Bonfire'' that he can direct a slick, fast, action-filled film, one that takes a satirical look at some of the people who live on this planet.
''Bonfire of the Vanities,'' based on the book by Tom Wolfe, is a cynical, on-the-mark observation of types we all recognize.
The movie opens here today.
''Bonfire of the Vanities'' *** A Wall Street trader sees his life going down the drain when the car in which he is riding strikes a young black man.
CAST: Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman, F. Murray Abraham, Kim Cattrall, Saul Rubinek, Donald Moffat, Alan King
RATING: PG-13 (language)
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes