CINEMA : Crash: did we wait so long for this?

'Beyond depravity' was the verdict of one commentator. Westminster Council agreed. But the fuss was surely misplaced
If those who would make an irresponsible connection between the car and the libido are to be subject to censorship and censure, what does the future hold for Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson? This was just one of the many fascinating questions raised by the initial, pre-Christmas furore over David Cronenberg's Crash (18). When one critic accused the film of being "beyond depravity", its director responded by agreeing enthusiastically - that if it was beyond depravity that meant it must be somewhere else. The cinema-going nation licked its chops in anticipation: a place beyond depravity ... what must that be like - Kidderminster? Telford? The excitement in the air was almost tangible.

Now that it is finally upon us, Crash does not seem so very shocking or outrageous after all. The pervasive sense of anti-climax which has accompanied the film's eventual public screening is, by a pleasing irony, entirely appropriate to its subject matter. This is after all a story about people who exist in such a moral and emotional vacuum that the idea of deriving sexual gratification from car accidents actually represents a step forward.

"Poor darling," Deborah Unger's understanding wife comforts James Spader's disconnected advertising executive after another of his erotic entanglements has come to nothing, "maybe the next one". This early exchange is repeated at the very end of the film, by which time the couple's quest for some way of making a meaningful connection with each other has taken on a distinctively metallic edge. The underlying message about sexual experimentation and motor cars seems, if not quite puritanical, at least cautionary. And the most dramatic consequence of Crash's general release is likely to be an increase in popular enthusiasm for a less road-oriented public transport policy.

Those in search of a satisfactory bang for their buck are more liable to derive gratification from Simon West and Scott Rosenberg's mighty Con Air (15). The impact of this gloriously over-the-top piece of film-making has also been slightly compromised - by the release of last week's Turbulence, which is basically the same tale told by an idiot - but it is still a worthy addition to the gung-ho oeuvre of producer Jerry Top Gun Bruckheimer. And all those who refused to go and see The Rock (last year's Bruckheimer epic), on the perfectly sensible grounds that it had Sean Connery in it, need have no such reservations this time round.

Nicolas Cage's Cameron Poe is an unlucky war hero, wrongly imprisoned for inadvertently killing a civilian less chivalrous and patriotic than himself. Paroled after eight years of squat thrusts and origami, he is on his way back to the bosom of his loving family when he finds himself in what might fairly be termed A Situation. The US marshals service has had one of the periodic funny turns that tend to affect federal agencies at the beginning of action films and loaded Poe's plane with a fearsome assemblage of the nation's most deadly criminals, thoughtfully stocking the hold with armour-piercing weaponry. Needless to say, the plane is soon in the wrong hands, and only Cage's hilariously muscular brand of heroism and unnerving resemblance to Wolf from Gladiators stand between civilisation and anarchy.

The rogues' gallery - "Cyrus the Virus", "Billy Bedlam", "Diamond Dog" - has a drearily post-Tarantino look about it initially but first rate pantomime turns by John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi soon stamp a bit of character on the proceedings. Scott Rosenberg's script somehow manages to be sly without being disengaged (His last film was the wistful ensemble guy-fest Beautiful Girls, so he's certainly got range). And the whole thing is raised on to a (ahem) higher plane by Nicolas Cage's most lovably lunk-headed performance since Raising Arizona - his delivery of the line, "Put that bunny back in the box", is worth the price of admission alone.

Con Air borrows its motto ("The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by observing its prisoners") from Dostoevsky and its aesthetics from Wagner. If the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by observing its action films, then at the moment when Nicolas Cage strides through a hail of bullets to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd's redneck rock anthem "Sweet Home Alabama", America is looking pretty advanced.

Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (15) is considerably more fun than the loyal smile on Demi Moore's face as she emerged from the Cannes opening night screening might have led the public to believe ("Fair's fair, dear", her husband Bruce Willis might have riposted, "I had to sit through Striptease"). Admittedly it's not a patch on Willis's last venture into the future, the excellent 12 Monkeys: Besson would not know a good story if it bit him on the bottom, and there are too many overdone cameos for comfort. But some of the design is fantastic, especially the exhilarating virtual cityscape, and there are enough incidental pleasures (Tricky as a mild- mannered bad guy, Milla Jovovich's attempts to speak "the divine language") to keep the most demanding crowd diverted.

Claude Lelouch is a French director of the old school, or at least of the old wave of new wave. The title of his 35th film, Men, Women: a User's Manual (12) suggests the sort of awful comedy of sexual mores for which those of a Gallic persuasion are justly notorious, in whose Hollywood remake Meg Ryan might take the lead. A lot of strange and interesting things happen in it, though. In fact, if it wasn't half an hour too long, and didn't suffer from a surfeit of self-satisfied sexual generalisations and pseudo-philosophical posturing, this film would be something of a classic.

Two undercover policemen track down a woman who hangs out in graveyards waiting to relieve lonely widowers of their fortunes. Two teenagers meet on a train and spend the rest of the film trying to track each other down through the fog of lies they have told to create a good impression. A complex chain of further inter-related deceptions unfurls with rare elegance, and a distinguished ensemble cast, including Pierre Arditi, Anouk Aimee and the delightfully dolorous Fabrice Luchini, gets a banquet of complex characters to chew on. The acting honours go not to the professionals though but an amateur - disgraced ex-cabinet minister, media mogul and football match-fixer Bernard Tapie, who turns in a magnetic performance as a character very like himself.

Aki Kaurismaki's Drifting Clouds (12) is as sparse as Lelouch's film is ornate. The first piece of work by this prolific and rigorous Finnish writer-director to be properly distributed here since 1990's rather hit and miss I Hired a Contract Killer, this stands in the same relation to Kaurismaki's bleakly humorous canon as Life Is Sweet does to the rest of Mike Leigh's work, ie it is a rare moment of genuine optimism. The situation - a husband and wife battling with un- employment in Helsinki - is classically dour Kaurismaki, but the film's colour has the lovely lost quality of illustrations in a 1950s encyclopedia. And the upbeat nature of its conclusion is all the more heartening for its unexpectedness.

One of two worthy efforts likely to be eclipsed by this week's unusual number of high-profile releases, Alive and Kicking (15) is the debut original screenplay by the playwright Martin Sherman. It deals in a courageous and unflinching manner with a minority group our society continues to subject to widespread discrimination and prejudice: professional dancers. Committed central performances from a twinkly Antony Sher and ginger poster- boy Jason Flemyng sustain the momentum of a depressingly inexorable Aids storyline, and the show-stopping finale is extremely moving.

Entertaining Angels (12) is an oddly watchable church-sponsored biopic about campaigning US catholic journalist and human-rights activist Dorothy Day (Coming soon: The Cristina Odone Story - just when you thought it was safe to go back in the confession box). The Informer (12) is an oddly unwatchable reissue of John Ford's grim 1935 Irish republican landmark, whose only rationale is to take the heat off Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt's forthcoming The Devil's Own. Last, and definitely least, Albert Pyun's Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (18) pips Ford's creaky old warhorse to this week's golden raspberry: Christopher Lambert and Natasha Henstridge chase a cannibal round the sewers for the longest 76 minutes in the history of cinema.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14. Kevin Jackson returns next week.