Cinema: The best gangster flick in ages

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels 18

The Horse Whisperer PG

The Spanish Prisoner PG

The Real Howard Spitz 18

The Proposition 12

Who'd lumber a movie with a dumb title like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? First-time writer-director Guy Ritchie, actually. Fortunately, this is his only major lapse of judgement. His cockney gangster flick easily outguns any recent attempts upon the genre (Antonia Bird's Face, JK Amalou's Hard Men), and is funny, violent and stylish enough to become an instant cult - especially with people who think that the Krays were all diamond geezers who kept their manor safe for old ladies to walk in.

Essentially, it's bloodthirsty farce, satisfyingly choreographed: a bit like a Ray Cooney play in which cash, drugs and guns have replaced sexual gratification as the plot's objective correlative. The dramatis personae - from its pretty-boy card-sharp hero (Nick Moran) to the freak show of broken-nosed, lantern-jawed yobbos that make up the supporting cast - are violent ne'er-do-wells to a man. Hatchet Harry (PH Moriarty) is a porn king who bludgeons his enemies to death with a monster dildo; his henchman Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean) earns his nickname by drowning his victims in a barrel; Yardie mobster Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood) is a psychopath in a lounge-suit. They're all after money rather than love. Which isn't surprising, perhaps, in a film that offers a granite-brained debt-collector called Big Chris (played by footballer Vinnie Jones) as its highest moral authority.

Ritchie has an excellent ear for deadpan Cock-a-knee patter, and Jones's lunkheaded delivery is one of the movie's principal pleasures. Ritchie's decision to put him in a longish two-handed scene with Sting (playing Moran's tough-nut dad) is inspired. As I watched Britain's two most wooden actors playing their lines like a pair of almost-animated chipboard planks, I was overcome by a feeling of indescribable joy.

If you love Robert Redford as much as Robert Redford does (which I'm not sure is possible), you'll have a great time at The Horse Whisperer. Nicholas Evans's middlebrow bestseller is the inspiration for this glossy weepie, in which Redford stars as Tom Booker, a Marlboro man with a knack for soothing neurotic nags. Enter Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), an uptight Tina Brown-type magazine editor with a troubled heart and a disturbed horse. Luckily for Booker, women and ungulates respond to similar treatment: a calm gaze, a quick squeeze of fetlock and suddenly both Annie and Pilgrim the horse are eating out of his hand. Nobody mentions that if this was real life, Tom would have bow legs and smell like Fred Quilley from Hi-de-Hi.

It's the women and animals who carry the film's emotional burden: Annie bites her lip and wails, her daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) sulks, and Pilgrim gallops the gamut of equine angst. But Redford just stands there in his denims and bumless leather pants, exuding irony-free, karmic quietness. Other egotists who direct themselves - Warren Beatty for example - go to the trouble of performing for the camera. Redford seems to think that allowing his audience to gaze upon his wrinkled blondness under a honey-coloured Montana sunset is quite enough to justify the admission price.

The Horse Whisperer is two and a half hours of banal moralising on the evils of modern living. Urban spaces are windswept and unfriendly; Midwestern cornfields are spanned by rainbows and populated by unblinkingly virtuous pastoral types. More creepily, Redford also seems to disapprove of the cosmopolitanism of the urban environment: the only non-white faces we see are in the bitchy inferno of Annie's office. And he seems to be making the same point with the food in his movie. Annie's trendy fruit bowl (full of unAmerican exotica like starfruit) is treated with suspicion - in sharp contrast to the warm close-ups he lavishes on the mashed potato and steak consumed by his Aryan cowpokes.

Watching David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner is a bewildering experience. It begins neatly enough, as a hall-of- mirrors suspense movie in which the inventor of a top-secret industrial process (Campbell Scott) strikes a bargain with a mysterious businessman (Steve Martin). In comparison to earlier Mamet thrillers (Homicide, House of Games) the twists and turns of The Spanish Prisoner are easily anticipated, as the film totters towards an unsatisfactory finale that would have better suited Naked Gun 21/2. Discussing these problems in any detail, of course, would make seeing the movie a pointless exercise. Unfortunately, it's a pretty pointless exercise anyway.

There are simple pleasures to be had from Vadim Jean's The Real Howard Spitz, in which Kelsey Grammer plays an antisocial crime writer who writes a hit children's book about a (metaphorically) hardboiled detective cow. The slapstick finale is mishandled, but Grammer burns with misanthropic wit, and is well-served by a sparky script. It's not the Frasier star's big cinematic breakthrough, but it's a step in the right direction. He's still on the up.

Which is more than you can say for Kenneth Branagh, whose career seems to be in meltdown. He's trapped in a three-picture deal with Polygram, and forced to participate in disasters like Leslie Linka Glatter's The Proposition. Branagh plays a Catholic priest in Thirties Boston, who impregnates a Virginia Woolfish novelist (Madeleine Stowe). The dialogue is abominable:"Who will draw your bath for you, so that you can luxuriate in bubbles from Paris?" The Proposition was due to be sneaked out straight to video this month, but perhaps sending it out into cinemas was a smart idea. As Father Ken came cantering through the Massachusetts autumn, cassock billowing in the wind, it suddenly looked like this week had spawned a second potential cult. MS

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