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Milking the violence for all it's worth

Leon (18) Dir: Luc Besson I Like It Like That (15) Dir: Darnell Martin Trapped in Paradise (PG) Dir: George Gallo Straw Dogs (18) Dir: Sam Peckinpah
For his American debut, Luc Besson has pulled off an astonishing stunt: he has managed to make a thriller even slicker, sillier and more vacuous than Nikita. Set in New York - an opening helicopter track across Central Park lake is its most exhilarating moment - Leon is the tale of a reclusive hit-man with a heart of mush (Jean Reno) who finds himself in charge of a 12-year-old waif called Mathilda (Natalie Portman), suddenly orphaned when a crooked, indeed psychopathic, drug squad man (Gary Oldman) massacres her dealer father and the rest of her unlovely family. The film is at pains to play down any whiff of paedophilia, partly by underlining Leon's asceticism (he only drinks milk; sinister), partly by the old device of deliberately mentioning the topic that mustn't be mentioned: Mathilde make a spiteful joke about their unnatural relationship which gets the couple expelled from a hotel. Seldom averse to facile paradox, Besson is keen to make Leon the killing machine seem not just a decent chap but, as Mathilde gushes, "the most wonderful guy I've ever met" - an avenging angel stalking the unrighteous, and a role model for single fathers everywhere.

This is, as one would expect, wholly unconvincing, and Besson's techniques for endowing his thug with a spiritual life, which include a pot plant and Eric Serra's sleeve-tugging score, are an embarrassment. Leon comes closest to fun when Besson ditches his loftier aspirations and is content to show off how glossily brutal he can be. Reno, a gawky melancholic with a deep, resonant post-synced voice, is a reasonably arresting presence, there are several flashy shoot-outs (each one art-directed to within an inch of its life), and Gary Oldman turns in his least inhibited performance to date. His character has the B-movie habit of popping pills just before he slays: Oldman squirms and grimaces so alarmingly as the drugs take hold that you expect him to sprout fur and howl.

I Like It Like That may mark a double debut: it's the first feature by Darnell Martin, and is billed as the first major studio film directed by a black woman (how about A Dry White Season?) Chances are it won't be Martin's last. From its wittily choreographed opening shot onwards, the film crackles with unforced comedy and invention. Its freshness is all the more surprising when you consider that the movie is largely built from cliches: it's about a young mother from the Bronx (Lauren Velez), who hustles her way into a plum job and various amorous complications after her callow husband is thrown in prison. This is the stuff of a thousand feelgood romances, but spiked with just the right amount of realism - enough to cut the sugariness, not too much topoop the party.

Another debut, George Gallo's Trapped in Paradise, suffers unfairly from tardy release: it's a Christmas movie which has arrived either a bit late or ridiculously early. Such unhappy timing wouldn't matter much if the film were wholly negligible, but forits first 40-odd minutes there are plenty of comic treats, chief among them Nicolas Cage's hang-dog face and barely contained hysteria as an honest older son whose ex-jailbird brothers (Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey) bamboozle him into taking part in a raid on the town bank of Paradise, Pennsylvania, a place so sweet it makes Bedford Falls look like Beirut. But it's the night before Christmas, and the robber brothers, brimming with seasonal goodwill, soon repent. Unfortunately, so does Gallo, so that all the sharp timing and sadistic wit drains away, leaving only a few barbs sticking up from the residual slush.

The recent censorship tussles about Natural Born Killers have prompted the BFI to re-release a film which caused a fuss two decades ago: Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), the Cornish Tourist Board's worst nightmare. After so many oceans of blood have poured across the screens, the film's brutal finale now seems relatively moderate, though still uncomfortably exciting. But something stranger has happened to Peckinpah's insinuation that only by slaughtering a few rustics can the cuckolded young academic David (Dustin Hoffman) become a Real Man. It was this thesis, even more than the scene in which Susan George's character is raped and seems to enjoy it, which helped made the film notorious. "Fascism" was muttered in some quarters.

Nowadays, though, Peckinpah's moral seems not so much Fascist as barmy. There's a revealing anecdote which tells how the director once put a snake and a mongoose into a cage, and asked "Who do you think will win?" "You will, Sam", said a shrewd friend. Precisely: the drama of Straw Dogs is a rigged match, an ethical cheat which allows no avenue for masculine courage save murder. And yet the film doesn't feel cynical, as it might in the hands of a less driven, more pandering director; it's Peckinpah's sheer unreasonableness that lends the film its lasting power to disturb. Incidentally, film nerds have long known that the cryptic title Straw Dogs is an allusion to the Tao Te Ching; the exact nature of Peckinpah's interest in Taoism remains cloudy.

n On release from Friday