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The Debt collector anthony neilson (18) n The Lost Son chris menges (18) n Rogue Trader James Dearden (15) n Simon Birch Mark Steven Johnson (pg)

IN The Debt Collector, Billy Connolly plays Nickie Dryden, a reformed ex-convict once feared around the mean streets of Edinburgh as a vicious loan shark, but now feted for a best-selling autobiography and an exhibition of sculptures. This acclaim sticks in the craw of his old arresting officer, Keltie (Ken Stott), who turns up at Dryden's private view to deliver a warning: "You may have paid your debt to these fine people, Nickie - but your ain folk'll be waiting on you." Those Scots!

Writer-director Anthony Neilson's debut feature is built on the classic lines of a revenge drama, such as Unforgiven - one-time killer is hounded and haunted by the lawman who refuses mercy - yet it also works as a study in guilt and self-loathing. Dryden's erstwhile method of intimidation was to hurt somebody close to the debtor - a wife or child - known among the criminal fraternity as "policy". When a violent young thug (Iain Robertson) - who idolises the Dryden of old - decides to adopt this said "policy", the air thrums with dread as the two auld adversaries are lured into conflict.

The two central performances are the rock on which the film builds. As Keltie, Stott achieves a towering, almost Shakespearean sense of grievance: he seems at times tormented by jealousy, as much as indignation. Connolly shrewdly underplays as the hard man who can't shake off the ghosts: there's some fine marginal observation of his wife's parents, who can scarcely bring themselves to look Dryden in the eye.

Neilson directs with patience and restraint until the final reel when the plot slides unstoppably into McGovern-style histrionics, the effect of which is to make you wonder how this whole vendetta could have been conducted without Keltie's superiors adopting preventive measures (e.g. locking him up!). A shame, though it's still a creditable and stylish piece of work.

Daniel Auteuil doesn't sound entirely at home with his first English- language role in The Lost Son, but hunched inside a leather jacket and chainsmoking untipped gaspers he certainly looks compelling. He plays a Parisian detective exiled on the borders of Soho, where he keeps a tankful of fish and scrapes by on sleazy divorce work. When an old colleague (Ciaran Hinds) contacts him to track down the errant son of his new in-laws, Auteuil finds evidence in the missing man's flat of a paedophile ring whose kingpin is known only as "the Austrian".

Director Chris Menges manages that trick of making London seem at once seedy and glamourous, and with Auteuil's characterful nose and dark, quizzical eyes to guide us, the film for a while looks promising. Unfortunately it fritters away the attractive menace of its early scenes, first by resorting to standard thriller tropes - tart with the heart, underworld villains, a haunted past - and then by decamping to Mexico, where the plot is baked to a melodramatic crisp.

It doesn't help that Auteuil's is the only developed role in the entire picture, despite Menges having a talented international cast at his disposal: Nastassja Kinski, Katrin Cartlidge, Billie Whitelaw and Bruce Greenwood are all underused, and surely someone could have told Ciaran Hinds to drop the bad Euro-accent. In the end it's simply a mediocre genre piece. The surprise is that a filmmaker of Menges' calibre should have aimed so low.

The story of Nick Leeson, the man whose balls did for Barings, isn't without movie potential, but writer-director James Dearden hasn't much of a clue about realising it. For a movie about gambling, Rogue Trader is a dispiritingly bland, risk-free enterprise that fluffs just about every opportunity to make a killing. Ewan McGregor plays Leeson, the plasterer's son from Watford transported on the back of Thatcherite economics to the venerable precincts of Barings Bank, where he swiftly establishes himself in their Singapore office as premier pitbull. Between his vaulting ambition and the bank's breezy hubris a catastrophe is hatched, but before that we are asked to sit through what is essentially a desk job - blazered youths gesturing maniacally and yelling into each other's faces; long- distance telephone calls from the stuffed shirts in London, and an unconscionable amount of talk about maths.

McGregor's voiceover conducts us through this rise and fall via a script of nearly awe-inspiring banality: "She was a stunner, all right" takes care of his courtship of his wife Lisa (Anna Friel), and just in case we haven't twigged that Leeson is in deep he decries his losses - "50 million quid!" - in front of a mirror.

Try as he might, Dearden can't stir the movie out of sluggishness, and given that we already know its infamous conclusion, there's no suspense. Only Tim McInnerny as a Barings bigwig seems to sense the fun to be had, his earnest idiocy suggesting how the film might have worked had it been played as a galloping black farce. As it is, any investment must be taken at your own risk.

The eponymous hero of Simon Birch is a diminutive 12-year-old boy (Ian Michael Smith) who refuses to let his stunted size undermine his conviction that God has put him on earth for a purpose. Discovering precisely what that purpose might be requires a dosage of syrup and cornballs that EEC regulations would consider dangerous, but which still passes unremarked in the States.

John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany was apparently the inspiration, but responsibility lies with director Mark Steven Johnson's script and Marc Shaiman's repulsively winsome score - they sound like they deserve each other.

AQ

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