Film: Also showing: Like driving with the brakes on

PRIMAL FEAR Gregory Hoblit (18) UNE FEMME FRANCAISE Regis Wargnier (18) SPY HARD Rick Friedberg (PG) ANGUS Patrick Read Johnson (12) MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND Brian Henson (U)

To be duped by the masquerade at the root of Primal Fear, you'd have to be as stupid as the movie's preening persuasive hero, Martin Vail (Richard Gere). And that's pretty damn stupid by any standard. Vail is a man who serves himself above all others - he excels at his job as a Cochranesque lawyer but his courtship with celebrity has turned everything into a PR stunt. He appears on magazine covers and struts around the courtroom as though he's trying to get the jury off, not his client. (Whenever the stern judge, played by Alfred Woodard, upbraids him, it's fruity and funny, like a teacher chiding a boy for mooning.) Facing an ex-lover (Laura Linney), who's pitted against him in court, only adds a dash more pleasure to his business. And being an exhibitionist, he's energised by the assumption that the murder case he's taken on, free of charge, will prove to be his downfall. It becomes a dare, and he's pleased that so many people doubt his judgement - he knows that it will give the inevitable victory that extra kick.

Not that you'd glean much of this scintillating fusion of sexual and professional prowess from Gere's performance. He hasn't been so listless since King David, and at least in that film you were distracted from his acting by the fact that he was wearing a big nappy. Screenwriters Steve Shagan and Anne Biderman are generally inept at sustaining tension, but their sense of characterisation is impeccable, and you're disappointed that Gere works so hard against the complexities they've given him - he's all suggestion and no substance. The supporting cast, conversely, deserve a far better film: there are three excellent women (Woodard, Linney and Frances McDormand) who show Gere up for the ghost that he is; and the neatly edgy Edward Norton whose turn as the suspected and possibly schizophrenic killer is so bold it belongs on a carnival float.

Primal Fear is a film about performance, but it's not wild or ostentatious the way you feel it ought to be; it's like the volume and colour have been turned down, when in fact a picture that is this full of contrived shocks and psychological hogwash needs the sort of mischief that Brian De Palma could bring (and a stronger twist to hinge on than the lame punchline we get here). The movie's biggest flaw is politeness - even the central murder and its various motives and implications have only a muted impact. This superficial thriller remains, like Gere, forever stuck in first.

Daniel Auteuil is one of the most fearless and startling actors working in cinema today, and as such he could probably have made even Primal Fear watchable if he just had a walk-on part in it. So it's a measure of how rotten Une Femme Francaise is that, despite his sporadic appearances, it has all the allure of a masochistic study of one woman's pathological promiscuity. Which is exactly what it is. As the doomed couple whose relationship slips from infidelity to brutality, Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart invest far too much passion into a script which deserved a firm "non" when it first flopped on to the doormat. How bad does it get? Try the scene where Beart breaks down while watching a female acrobat being flung from man to man in a trapeze show which is intended to mirror her own lovelife. At least that's laughable. The rest of the movie finds the director, Regis Wargnier, pursuing pain and hurt with an obsessiveness that borders on voyeurism. His characters are walking wounds; his film is septic.

A director has to be impossibly brainless to botch that old slapstick favourite, the walking into a door routine. It's about the only thing that Rick Friedberg gets right in his abominable spoof thriller, Spy Hard. It's yet another example of Leslie Nielsen exploiting his previous connections with the near genius Zucker brothers (creators of Airplane and The Naked Gun) in order to give a phoney validity to a derivative hack job. Of course the Zuckers have had nothing to do with such baloney; each of the jokes contained in this tardy James Bond send-up would be booed out of any playground. And when are film-makers going to learn that replicating a scene from a movie (such as the Pulp Fiction dance sequence) is not the same as lampooning it? For a supposedly zany comedy, this is no laughing matter.

The kids have got it sweet this week by comparison. Certainly a schlepp to see Angus or Muppet Treasure Island would be preferable to enduring any of the week's other releases. Angus is the sweet-natured if slightly muddled tale of an overweight underdog learning to cope with other people's prejudices. Although the scenes with George C Scott as Angus's benevolent grandfather make the film plod, it's more fun than it sounds. This is mostly due to Charlie Talbert in the lead; his sensitivity and comic timing are well beyond his years.

As with their 1992 outing, Muppet Christmas Carol, the new Muppet comedy is warm, wacky and packed with dippy jokes that would put most adult comedies to shame. The flesh and blood performers are a treat too - Jennifer Saunders, Tim Curry (as Long John Silver) and Billy Connolly, who gets a riotous protracted deathbed scene. The Muppets are still gaining momentum, which is odd as the audience that Muppet Treasure Island is aimed at could only know the characters from their elders' reminiscences. They've become an iconic presence which absence cannot erode, like God or Bea Arthur.

All films are on release from tomorrow

RYAN GILBEY

Arts and Entertainment

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