Shadow Dancer, James Marsh, 100 mins (15) The Three Stooges, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, 92 mins (PG) The Watch, Akiva Schaffer, 102 mins (15)

It's MI5 here, and this is your choice: leave your son or spy on your brothers ...

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The Independent Culture

James Marsh's documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim established him as one of Britain's best directors – and all it takes is 10 minutes near the beginning of Shadow Dancer to prove that he's just as adept at drama. In a mesmerising, almost wordless set piece, an IRA operative (Andrea Riseborough) leaves a bomb on the London Underground, only to be bundled into a car by two silent men a moment later. She's then deposited in a hotel room where an MI5 liaison (Clive Owen) tells her that she can either go to prison, hundreds of miles away from her young son, or she can return to Belfast and spy on her two brothers (Aidan Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson).

It's a superbly economical sequence, and while the rest of Marsh's film is similarly grown-up and assured, there's nothing else in it that reaches the same level. It's certainly a smaller, more muted story than the opening act would suggest. Set in grey council estates where Republican hardliners mutter over their cups of tea, and grey municipal offices where MI5 agents sit at their desks, it all plays out over a couple of weeks in 1993, so Riseborough's double life is over before she's had a chance to get entangled in too many secrets and lies. A cloud bank of potential danger hangs over proceedings, but very few scenes are thrilling, in and of themselves. Marsh and Tom Bradby – who wrote the script based on his own novel – imbue their film with a hazy, distancing fatalism, as if it's all happened already, and there's no point getting worked up about it now.

There are two Hollywood comedies out this week, one of which sounds as if it should be good, but isn't, and one of which appears to be the worst idea in the history of cinema, but turns out to be half-decent. The latter is the Farrelly brothers' The Three Stooges, not a biopic of the vaudeville trio, but a farce set in the present day, with three contemporary actors impersonating Larry, Curly and Moe. There's no explanation for these violent nitwits dressing in mid-century workwear or calling each other "chowderhead". And yet the film works as a simple, heartfelt tribute to the Stooges, with enough nose-tweaking and head-slapping for it to double as a family-friendly live-action cartoon.

The Watch, on the other hand, seems to be promising prospect on paper, but is abysmal on the screen. Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade star as a neighbourhood watch group that stumbles upon an alien monster. It's a puerile mess, with a plot that never gets going, even after the heroes discover the extraterrestrials in their midst.

Don't, in short, bother to watch The Watch.