Nun on the run, cowgirls on acid - and morons in space

Amateur US (15) Director: Hal Hartley Even Cowgirls Get the Blues US (15) Director: Gus van Sant Love, Cheat and Steal US (18) Director: William Curran StarGate US (PG) Director: Roland Emmerich Timecop US (18) Director: Peter Hyams

Hal Hartley describes Amateur as "an action thriller with one flat tyre": how's that for a snazzy high-concept movie-pitch? And how's this for a synopsis: ex-nun and virgin nymphomaniac turned failed pornographer becomes involved with a handsome amnesiacwho used violently to abuse his former mistress, a porn star, who in turn sets a brace of high-powered corporate assassins on her lover's tail?

You will gather that, unlike his early, meandering comedies of social anomie (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men), Hartley's new film is rather on the strong side in the plot department.

It adopts that hoariest of Hollywood conventions, the amnesiac who's not nearly as nice as he seems, and a genre format, but this is a gangster picture at two removes: just as French post-war film-makers refashioned the serie B thriller with an existential spin, so Hartley reworks it yet again from a post-modern American perspective. His stylish, melancholy, terminally self-conscious hoods put you in mind of all those little Bogarts clutching copies of Camus and toting guns like fashion accessories thatyou find in Godard's movies.

The European accent is reinforced by Isabelle Huppert (Hartley's biggest star yet) and the Romanian-born Elina Lowensohn as the two female leads: in their mouths his deadpan dialogue acquires added layers of strangeness and absurdity. The film's title r e flects, Hartley says, "the way I feel most of the the time, sort of confused about what . . . `competence' refers to". It also alludes to the charming ineptitude of all his characters (Huppert writes the saddest pornography you ever heard; Lowensohn's bi d at blackmail fails spectacularly; even the Yuppie hitmen can't operate their mobile phones). Finally, Hartley must want to invoke the word's other meaning: enthusiast or admirer. He's an acquired taste, but the new film has a warmth, humour and humanit y that might please even hostile palates.

Gus van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues had all the hallmarks of the coolest film of the year, if not the decade: cult source novel by Tom Robbins, rich and strange cast (Uma Thurman, Angie Dickenson, Keanu Reeves, John Hurt, William Burroughs), soun d track by kd lang, vintage Seventies hippie-feminist story. It premiered at Venice in 1993 to an unfriendly reception and has taken this long to resurface, radically re-edited by the director. The result is better, more streamlined; the tedious character of The Chink has been nudged on to the sidelines. It remains a mess, but a fitfully interesting one.

Because of Christmas screening schedules I saw Love, Cheat and Steal two weeks ago and can barely remember it. A dull film noir that shows how hard it is to do these well (for a textbook example see John Dahl's The Last Seduction), it stars Eric Roberts and Madchen Amick.

In the week's two straight action movies, Big Brother is watching us. In Washington, Clinton may agonise over US foreign policy, but it's good to know that, back in Hollywood, Uncle Sam is still busy making the world safe for democracy. In fact he's extending his dominion: in StarGate and Timecop he's the legitimate policeman of space, time and everything.

In StarGate James Spader's shuffling, shambolic academic preaches the crackpot theory that the Pyramids were built, not by ancient Egyptians, but by aliens from outer space. What if he were right? And what if the ancient structures turned out to be spacecapsules capable of transporting you to wondrous civilisations gazillions of light years away? What, then, would be the response of the US military? Why, they would immediately despatch Kurt Russell to nuke the whole planet. StarGate starts out like a conspiracy thriller about crop circles directed by Oliver Stone and ends up like Rambo in Outer Space. The planet, it turns out, is under the thumb of the swishy, despotic King Ra (Jaye Davidson, from The Crying Game) and it's all down to our American friends to liberate this extraterrestrial Third World, plying the grateful natives with candy bars, cigarettes and other boons of capitalism along the way. Directed by Roland Emmerich, this is an old-fashioned space opera with an enjoyabl y daft script, thundering soundtrack, and whooshy special effects.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, the invention of time travel in the year 2004 prompts Washington to set up an Enforcement Commission to stop miscreants tampering with history. Jean-Claude van Damme (whom Emmerich propelled out of the kickboxing ghetto with Universal Soldier) is the Commission's star Timecop, having joined up to forget the murder of his pregnant wife.

Actors who play JC's loved ones are used to short-term contracts: his brothers and (now that he's starry enough to be allowed romantic interest) wives have a brief life expectancy. It's the human factor which justifies his spending entire films vengefully kicking ass. But has he learnt how to act? Let's just say I haven't yet established to my satisfaction whether he's animal, vegetable or mineral. But Timecop is his most expensive movie yet, and the makers are taking no chances. With a confident actiondirector, Peter Hyams (Capricorn One; 2010), and dependable character actors (Ron Silver, Bruce McGill) on either flank, the Muscles from Brussels almost manages to look good.

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