Unstoppable, Tony Scott, 99 mins (12A)
London Boulevard, William Monahan, 104 mins (18)
Machete, Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis, 105 mins (18)

The runaway train came down the track and, er, I tried not to nod off

The characters and dialogue in Unstoppable are so clichéd that I scribbled in my notes: "All it's missing are a terminal illness and someone who's got one week to go before retirement." I scribbled too soon.

Half an hour later, both of those hoary ways of eliciting sympathy for a film's cardboard cast had been wheeled on.

Still, you could argue that it hardly matters in a movie about a runaway train packed with explosive chemicals. The train – "a missile the size of the Chrysler building" – will raze a Pennsylvania town unless it can be halted by two blue-collar engineers, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, so there's no point expecting nuance. Furthermore, Unstoppable is directed by Tony Scott and scripted by the writer of Die Hard 4.0, so credibility was never going to be a priority. No, what matters here is the action – and it's in this respect that Unstoppable is a non-starter.

For much of the running time, what we get is Washington and Pine discussing their marriages in the cab of another train, while Rosario Dawson watches them on a screen and looks nervous. There are two notable stunts – Washington running along some carriage roofs and Pine jumping from a car to a train – and Scott botches them both, consigning them to a few grudging seconds of blurry footage shot from about a mile away. He seems to see the action as an annoying interruption to the more pressing concern of the heroes' marital hiccups.

What's worse is how Scott keeps breaking the show-don't-tell rule of narrative by cutting to television news coverage of the events, so that reporters can inform us, again and again, how fast the loco locomotive is going and how calamitous it would be if it crashes. By the time Unstoppable runs out of steam, I was less adrenalised than after an average episode of Ivor the Engine, but the Fox News logo was seared on to my retinas. And guess which company financed the film?

London Boulevard is the directorial debut of William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Departed. It's peppered with epigrammatic one-liners, and it's odd enough to build a cult following, but on this form, Monahan would be wise ... well, I was going to say he'd be wise to stick to writing, but he should probably rethink that as well. He starts with a stock character, played by Colin Farrell (whose Cockney accent hasn't improved since Cassandra's Dream): the ex-con who just wants to go straight, but who has too many crooked friends and needy relatives to let that happen. Monahan then puts this stock character in a story that gets more bizarre by the moment.

Farrell, we're repeatedly told, isn't a criminal at heart – and yet he glasses someone for making a bad joke. Ray Winstone insists that Farrell joins his loan-sharking racket – and yet he's shown no aptitude for the job. He meets a reclusive film star, Keira Knightley, who can't stand the paparazzi or the movie business – and yet she decides that Los Angeles might be the place for her. Need some more "And yets"? London Boulevard is set in the present day, and yet its soundtrack is stuffed with Sixties Brit rock. And the story is deeply trippy, and yet it's shot with all the psychedelic flair of EastEnders.

It's a spiralling, overcrowded, over-complicated folly, and that's even before we come to Anna Friel in her Holly Golightly costume, and David Thewlis's foppish thespian junkie: "I was on a kid's TV show. Then I was on methadone". And if anyone can explain what Sanjeev Bhaskar and Eddie Marsan's characters have to do with anything, I'd love to know.

Machete is more complicated than it needs to be, too. Starting life as one of the spoof trailers in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse double bill, it's been developed into a deliriously over-the-top Mexploitation film that's bursting with big guns, naked women, buckets of blood, and, crucially, droll jokes. Unfortunately, like most of Rodriguez's films, it has too many characters and storylines that should have been macheted in the editing suite. When your hero abseils down a building from someone's intestines, how many sub-plots do you really need?

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber faces an alien invasion in Monsters

Also Showing: 28/11/2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (148 mins, 15)

The made-for-television adaptation of Stieg Larsson's third Millennium novel ties up the trilogy's loose ends neatly, but that's about all it does: the heroine's either in a hospital bed or on a courtroom bench for the whole film.

Waiting For Superman (111 mins, PG)

This sprawling documentary from the director of An Inconvenient Truth makes some interesting points about the failings of the American school system, but not enough to justify the running time.

An Ordinary Execution (105 mins, 12A)

French period drama set in Russia in 1952, when an ageing Stalin (André Dussollier) summons a urologist (Marina Hands) to be his physician. It's not the choice of language that's distracting so much as the warm, handsome French look of the thing, which doesn't suit police-state paranoia.

Leap Year (92 mins, 18)

Grim Mexican indie drama set almost entirely in a lonely woman's flat, as she potters through her boring day-to-day life and has sex with strangers by night.

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