A little shaken, but not stirred

Imagine that in the mid-Sixties, roughly between Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, James Bond was sent on a mission to the States, to lift some microfilm from the FBI. Imagine that he fouled up, was disowned by M and Q and all his other Nato chums and was put in jail for the rest of his life. Imagine that, apart from the odd briefly successful escape, the incarcerated Bond had spent the past 30 years developing an unpredictable fondness for the music of Led Zeppelin and growing his hair to Robert Plant proportions. Finally, imagine the blistering, shaken-not-stirred wisecrack that he rasps out when the Feds pull him from his lightless cell to offer him freedom in return for his help with a spot of bother. Yes, you have it: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes."

Such, or something very like them, are among the more amusing premises for The Rock (15), directed by Michael Bay, this week's contribution to that thriving sub-genre of action-thriller devoted to headcases who steal an ultimate weapon and aim it against the Land of the Free. True, the name of Sean Connery's character is Patrick Mason rather than James Bond, and his provenance is supposed to be SAS rather than OHMSS, but these are technicalities. The film's most incredible detail, and least laboured joke, is that no one stops to remark on the similarities between Mason's CV and agent 007's, or on the curious mutations three decades in the slammer have wrought on a Bondian persona: Virgil, just maybe, but would the old, red-corpuscled Bond so much as dream of letting a Spectre agent catch him quoting Oscar Wilde?

The Rock's second-best joke is to set Connery's bristly roguishness off against Nicolas Cage at his most hang-dog and goofy. Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed, an unemployed chemistry buff and Beatles fan, who is suddenly called in for active service when a gonzo marine general (Ed Harris) steals an ultimate weapon (missiles armed with a nerve gas that makes flesh bubble like hot mozzarella), occupies Alcatraz, takes civilian hostages, and aims it against the Land of the Free, or, in this case, San Francisco. No conventional hero, Goodspeed pukes at the prospect. But since his pregnant girlfriend is among the targets, he agrees to sneak his way into the disused prison in the company of some Navy Seals and the one man ever to escape it: Mason. Gunfire follows.

Cage and Connery make a sparky buddy-act, and while the role of Mason could not be said to stretch Connery's abilities to snapping point, he's gloriously watchable; without him, it would be wearisome to plod through all the movie's contrivances and liftings - the scene in which the strike force first enters Alcatraz's labyrinthine tunnels is straight out of Aliens, and there's a grisly gimmick about an emergency injection of atropine directly to the heart - what can have inspired that idea? Connery even gets away with barking a line that sounds less like the fruit of 30 years' silent contemplation than the ventriloquised credo of The Rock's co-producer, the late Don Simpson, to whom the film is dedicated: "Losers whine about doing their best; winners go home and make love to the prom queen!" ("Make love" is a polite paraphrase.)

Winner or loser, Simpson could have left a worse tombstone than The Rock. For all its half-hearted prettified jingoism, it's a lot brighter and better than most Simpson/Bruckheimer productions, wearing its absurdities lightly and in a less faceless style - Michael Bay has contrived a car chase through San Francisco so dizzyingly cut that the thing seems as fresh as it might do if, like Mason, you hadn't seen it done dozens of times on screen over the last 30 years. From time to time, The Rock also displays enough cod-erudition to suggest its screenwriters might have opened a book or two in college. With Smoke, it is, astonishingly, the second film now on general release to contain an allusion to Sir Walter Raleigh.

To be sure, college education can be a mixed blessing, since it is in Freshman English that you learn all about Symbolism. John Schlesinger's An Eye for an Eye (18) begins with a little girl frightened by a moth, screaming, "Kill it, Mommy, please kill it!" A trifle laboured, you might think, for a film about a nice housewife (Sally Field) who turns Travis Bickle after her older daughter is raped and murdered by a creep who is then set free by those goddam pinkoes in the legal system. You would be right to think so, but in the context of the film as a whole the moth trick is Flaubertian in its understatement.

Essentially a genteel reprise of the Death Wish movies about violent reprisals, An Eye for an Eye sports the air of asking hard ethical questions, but loads the arguments so ham-fistedly that it seems like the long prelude to a dialectical twist that never arrives. The victims are sweeties, the killer (Keifer Sutherland) an unmitigated bounder: not content with rape, murder and public urination, he actually teases dogs. Never mind Sally Field, Mahatma Gandhi would have wanted to off this scumbag. Then, just in case anyone is still alert enough to try a spot of thinking about implication, the film shifts into idiot-thriller gear for the last half hour. A great film might be made in favour of the lex talionis, but Schlesinger's effort leaves you wondering less about just vengeance than his willingness to take on such sorry stuff.

Adapted from a story by HE Bates, John Irvin's A Month by the Lake (PG) seems squarely in the over-familiar Enchanted April mode, but slowly yields up something a shade stranger. The tone is sufficiently deadpan that it takes a while to realise that the occasional ludicrous notes are calculated: it's all quietly but firmly comic. The year is 1937, the Fascists are on the march, and Miss Bentley (Vanessa Redgrave), a spirited spinster on her annual holiday by Lake Como, falls for the expressive ears of the bufferish Major Wilshaw (Edward Fox), himself plainly on vacation from the pages of a PG Wodehouse novel. Their summer of mature passion is at once thwarted and catalysed by the arrival of a young American flibbertigibbet (Uma Thurman), who soon turns the Major's head (and ears). Vanessa Redgrave, in terrific shape, is the film's trump card: as a woman both young enough to suffer belated calf-love and old enough to regard her own weaknesses with sceptical amusement, she makes Miss Bentley a blend of gawkiness and grace, not to mention deep sexiness.

For the rest: Man of the Year (15) is a faked-up documentary about a real-life episode in the life of its director, Dirk Shafer, who was voted Centrefold of 1992 by the readers of Playgirl magazine, and was thus obliged to conceal the fact that he is homosexual. Though the artifice is no more believable than This is Spinal Tap, and not as funny, it's good-natured and entertaining enough. Contrariwise, Glastonbury: The Movie (15) is a real documentary with faked-up elements, pieced together from several different festivals, and concentrating more on the herbivores in the crowd than the acts on stage. A cocktail of the appropriate dangerous drugs might make it seem vaguely interesting.

The title of Maborosi (no cert), a first feature from the Japanese documentarist Hirokazu Kore-eda, means something like "apparition" or "Will-o'-the- wisp", and its most obvious point of reference within the film is the guilt which nags its young heroine Yumiko (one of Japan's most successful models, Makiko Esumi): was she in some way responsible for the suicide of her first husband and, in childhood, the death of her grandmother? Filmed mostly in static long and medium shots, often from behind, Maborosi is a melancholic mood piece which requires patience, and largely rewards it. Much, in fact, like the later films of Robert Bresson, whose second feature, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (PG), not often shown even by the rep cinemas, is having a welcome re-release. If you have found Bresson's work too inhospitable so far, this tale of exquisite amorous cruelties might change your mind; and if you really want to brood on vengeance and redemption, Les Dames is - or should that be are? - far more provocative company than Ms Field and her loaded .38.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.