A cat with nine former lives

Also showing: COPYCAT Jon Amiel (18) HACKERS Iain Softley (12) MARY REILLY Stephen Frears (15) BARB WIRE David Hogan (15) BOYFRIENDS Neil Hunter / Tom Hunsinger (nc) REBECCA Alfred Hitchcock (PG)
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The Independent Culture
Heard the one about the female cop trailing the effete serial killer? You have? Oh. Do you want to hear it again? Because you're about to. Copycat may be beautifully, delicately acted (by Holly Hunter, Sigourney Weaver and Dermot Mulroney) and blessed with a sumptuous piano-led score (by Christopher Young). But it's still the most aptly-named film of the year. It concerns a psychopath whose slayings take the form of homages to famous serial killers. There's a symmetry there: the film itself takes the form of homages to famous serial killer movies. "It's like he wants to be caught!", gasps a bewildered cop upon learning of the pattern. You could say the same about the film-makers.

Hunter plays Detective MJ Monahan, who is trailing the killer with her colleague Ruben Goetz (Mulroney). Stumped at the starting line, they follow up a phone call from Helen Hudson (Weaver), a criminal psychologist who has become a recluse since being attacked a year earlier by a maniacal hick (Harry Connick Jr). Monahan persuades Hudson to become involved in the case, and it's she who discerns the psychopath's game-plan, only to find her personal life violated by him - he starts sending Hudson messages on the Internet, and it becomes apparent that she is being lined up as a future victim.

Copycat borrows a structure and a pair of unhinged psychos from The Silence of the Lambs. Its geometrical compositions and smooth, fluid photography echo White of the Eye, and the blindingly bright lighting recalls The Shining. It even pickpockets a gag from No Way to Treat a Lady. I'll stop there so that you can have fun spotting the rest. Believe me, it's the only joy you'll find. The picture is tense and frightening; it has you squirming in your seat. But it's horribly airless, and to what end? It's a feel-bad movie, a stick of bubbleglum; it takes pleasure in your unhappiness.

But it manages to do some fascinating juggling tricks with its characters, at least until the last half-hour, when the screenwriters (Anne Biderman and David Madsen) abandon everything in pursuit of retribution and resolution. Sigourney Weaver, with her mirror-splintering stare and cumbersome trucker's swagger, is as unlikely a victim as she was in Death and the Maiden. Casting her as a meek, petrified agoraphobic is a bit like getting Jim Carrey to play a paraplegic, but the incongruity is pleasantly tangy.

There's some sparky playing between Weaver and Hunter, who is tiny and polite and yet remains, in another jarring but inspired move, the film's source of might. It's a pity that the writers discarded so much that could have redeemed the picture - like two overlapping near-love triangles, and the sinister character of Nicoletti (Will Patton), Hunter's ex-lover.

The picture has nothing new to offer in the way of psychology, though the director Jon Amiel does hit on one trenchant image to encapsulate the relationship between killer and victim: the former moves towards the latter holding a poised scalpel before him, and you think he's going to slice into her; but he uses it to puncture the bag that he's tied over her head, thus giving her breath and awarding her a few more moments of life.

I think that the abuse of technology is Copycat's most original and illuminating theme. Since retreating into her home, the Internet has been Weaver's main tool of communication. But when the killer beams his grisly collages into her home, it provides the film's most claustrophobic moment - it's as though he's blinded her, buried her. It raises a rather unfashionable concern that is the flipside of the technophobia of The Net - far from ploughing distance between us, the movie suggests, technology has actually brought us closer to each other than we were ever meant to be. One of the killer's visual Post-Its to Weaver comprises home-movie footage of his next victim: it's like a living, pulsating modern equivalent to the drab old ransom note.

The loud, silly new adventure Hackers also takes an unusually off-kilter look at technology, though it can't decide whether its band of avenging computer wizards (including Trainspotting's Jonny Lee Miller) are the new subversives or the new peeping toms. The plot, involving stolen data and all sorts of dull espionage, is irrelevant when you've got this much verve and energy. And the movie's idiosyncracies make you grin. You know you're onto something cheery and cheeky when all the young male bucks act like budding queens, and the sole female hacker (Angelina Jolie) imagines her prospective beau squeezed into a red rubber dress. Techno-geeks the world over should bow at Iain Softley's feet: he's hinted that charisma and computers may not be incompatible after all.

Early on in Mary Reilly, an alternative take on the Jekyll and Hyde story, you feel that you're in for something wicked. The housemaid Mary (Julia Roberts) is ordered to drag an enormous squirming eel to the kitchen, where it is bludgeoned and its skin yanked off like a stocking. As sexual symbolism goes, it has all the subtlety of... well, an enormous squirming eel. The rest of Stephen Frears' parched psycho-sexual drama, with John Malkovich in the split-personality role, could use some of that initial vigour. Instead, it's as witless as it is colourless, lacking even a basic understanding of the subtext. There's a darker tale of schizophrenia lurking within: how the genius who directed such explosive films as Bloody Kids and My Beautiful Laundrette could have made something so tame.

If I told you that Pamela Anderson's film debut Barb Wire is a regressive, juvenile, stultifying slog with a third-hand B-movie screenplay and fourth- hand futuristic art design, you'd probably say, 'Crikey, as bad as all that, eh?' Oh yes. It makes you ache for the complex characterisation and incisive satire of Baywatch.

Let's end on two highs. Boyfriends is a likeable first feature from Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, following three gay couples on a weekend break in the country. In its own modest, sweet-natured way, it tackles some big themes - commitment, fidelity, security - and asks some pertinent questions: "What on earth do you say to a 20-year-old?" "Please".

The week's one unmissable film is Hitchcock's Rebecca, dusted down in a new 35mm print. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine look as gorgeously vexed as ever but the real star is Judith Anderson as the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Whether drifting through the corridors of Manderley like a bad smell, or urging Fontaine on to suicide, she's a collision of Lotte Lenya and Margaret Thatcher, the sort of creation you're never too old to have nightmares about.