FILM / Western on a guitar string: Sheila Johnston on the week's new releases

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El Mariachi (15). . . . . . . . Robert Rodriguez (Mex)

Laws of Gravity (18). . . . . . Nick Gomez (US)

Stepping Razor: Red X (18). . . Nicholas Campbell (UK/Jam)

Hot Shots] Part Deux (12). . . .Jim Abrahams (US)

Lake Consequence (18). . . . . .Rafael Eisenman (US)

Robert Rodriguez raised half the money for his first feature by hiring out his services as a 'lab rat', and lived to tell the tale in the production notes. El Mariachi cost him dollars 7,000 ( pounds 4,650) and tells the age-old story about mistaken identity - a fresh-faced musician comes to town and finds himself taken for an itinerant hitman who keeps his arsenal in a guitar-case. It's a straight-arrow genre piece; a comic paella Western set in Mexico and shot in Spanish. But the film is a little triumph.

What distinguishes it is the execution. The performances are fresh and charming, the several chase scenes well-shot and choreographed (in one, the hero abseils on to the bonnet of a speeding bus) considering that there wasn't much money around for multiple takes. They are edited with rough energy. The soundtrack is precise and crafted. There has been, one feels, a keen attention to detail in every particular - the name Robert Rodriguez occurs with notable frequency in the credits: I counted it eleven times. But, most importantly, he has a droll sense of humour.

El Mariachi is being distributed by Columbia and it would be nice to think that the majors were wising up to the merits of no-budget movies (that distributor has just laid an egg with the slightly more expensive The Last Action Hero, but made a pile last year with the independent first film Boyz N The Hood). One less charitable view heard around Wardour Street, however, holds that the real attraction is the remake rights; the virtually un-exportable French comedy Les Visiteurs was bought, very reluctantly, for American distribution for just that reason.

But El Mariachi is the kind of formula that it will be hard to reproduce to order. And disappointing sophomore films are a known public hazard (ask Steven Soderbergh and John Singleton). Rodriguez looks like a lively talent. One hopes he can keep kicking against the pricks that come with a 'proper' budget.

If El Mariachi is reminiscent of early John Carpenter in its prankishness and fast-moving genre action, Laws of Gravity, another cheaply made first film, looks to Martin Scorsese's harsh verite vision of life in a rough New York neighbourhood. It has Mean Streets' loose, improvised-sounding dialogue, similar long sequence-shots and the same fluid, hand-held camera (the brilliant work by the Director of Photography, Jean de Segonzac, is the film's most impressive feature). And similar characters - the wild and crazy Jon is transparently modelled on De Niro's Johnny Boy.

But the resemblances are superficial; this is a much lesser film. Everything about it is flat - there's none of Scorsese's romanticism, no detectable ethnic background to these disaffected, semi-criminal youths, no pop-cultural energy (the soundtrack is immediately forgetable), no wit in the harsh, haranguing script. If you de-effed it, it'd be about 20 minutes shorter, which would be no bad thing.

'Bumbaclaat' (which apparently means something very bad in Jamaican patois) is the expletive of choice in Stepping Razor: Red X, a film as enigmatic as its title. It's the story of Peter Tosh, the reggae star who was murdered under sinister circumstances in 1987 and takes as its text the 'Red X Tapes' - autobiographical notes recorded by Tosh towards the end of his life. Partly, these musings are militant, advocating black power (some link his murder to plans to start up a black radio station), the legalisation of marijuana and the liberating powers of rasta.

Many of them are wild, mystical ravings inspired, you gather, by prodigious amounts of ganja - 'He would smoke the herb of the earth until his eye became as red as the flaming fire,' one of his contemporaries says. Tosh's is a fatalist, often paranoid vision, haunted by phantoms and duppies (evil spirits) - he was convinced demons had tricked him, aged five, into gouging his eye on a barbed-wire fence and believed his name was marked for death on all official documents with a red cross.

Stepping Razor tries to set him up as a martyr figure: a cross between Jim Morrison and John Lennon with the former's drug-fuelled pretensions and the latter's political utopianism. And the director, Nicholas Campbell, has interviewed an impressive number of witnesses. But his film is shapeless, over- edited (it wants to simulate Tosh's visions) and often incoherent, though at times it provides vivid flashes of the energy, poverty, superstitution and spirituality of Tosh's Jamaica.

The remains of the week may be swept aside briefly. Production schedules mean that most Hollywood films lag several laps behind the Zeitgeist, and it follows that any parody must puff even further in the rear. Hot Shots] Part Deux vaguely sends up (in life) the Desert Storm business and (in film) the Rambo / MIA cycle of the mid-Eighties. Charlie Sheen has been busy pumping up his upper torso to clone Stallone (he'd have been funnier if he'd had the bottle to play the role with a paunch). The film fields the usual suspects (Lloyd Bridges notably), and many, but not nearly enough, of the usual jokes.

Lake Consequence is devoid of that quality. It comes from Zalman King, the soft porn producer who makes ever-more inflated claims for himself - not satisfied with describing himself as the 'creator' of 9 1/2 Weeks he's now styling his films 'the Zalman King Collection'. In this, a bored suburban housewife is given a caterpillar in a jamjar by husky gardener Billy Zane and falls with him into the hay.

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