James Bond isn't really a character: he's a repertoire of sophisticated moves, most of which have become irretrievably naff. Who, for instance - apart from second- hand car salesmen - still has a gold cigarette lighter? Earlier incumbents of the role devised strategies to cope with this shallowness: Sean Connery turned on the sleaze, Roger Moore fizzed with knowing fruitiness. Pierce Brosnan's conservative incarnation plumps instead for an air of polite apology. As a result, he becomes marginal to his own adventures.

In Tomorrow Never Dies (12), Roger Spottiswoode knows that his promiscuous, unflappable hero has become ludicrous, and - for fear of looking stupid - is forced to signal this by making jokes at the expense of Bond's promiscuity and unflappability. But he also has to rely on these as the distinguishing trademarks of the series. Without the shaken Martinis and the tacky innuendo ("You must be a cunning linguist," quips Samantha Bond's Moneypenny), 007 is nothing but a number - which creates terrific problems for anyone trying to update him.

Spottiswoode does his best to surround Bond with bits of Nineties zeitgeist - Polaris missiles and cat-fancying Bloefelds have given way to IT and media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce, delivering every line as if on the point of orgasm). Unlike Donald Pleasance, Pryce doesn't dream of blowing up the world, he just wants exclusive rights to broadcast his rolling news channel to it. A very modern megalomania - immeasurably more contemporary than Bond's eternal delight in remote-control cars with bazooka add-ons, which remains wholly unreconstructed. Can you imagine the guy actually knowing about the Internet? Or Aids?

A braver option would have been complete reinvention - if Tim Burton can resurrect Batman as a lonely depressive with a rubber fetish, why can't Bond confront his own brutal emptiness? Why can't we see him as an ageing sadist trying to rediscover Cold War certainties in the bottom of a Martini glass? Instead, Spottiswoode serves up a glutinous mix of pastiche and parody, without seeming to know whether he's recycling or debunking his cliches.

What the movie does with its women - sorry, the "girls" - is a useful index on this lack of direction. As Wai Lin, kick-ass Hong Kong action heroine, Michelle Yeoh takes the lead in a riproaring, Thai-set set-piece, the only genuinely exciting action sequence. It's a deliberate attempt to inject some Jackie Chan-style kinetics into the franchise, but Yeoh's witty acrobatics only serve to point up Bond's lumbering complacency. 007 is much more at home with Teri Hatcher's Paris Carver, a feathered femme who in the old days would have been called something like Pudenda Beaucoup. It's a symptom of the vague embarrassment with which the film treats its conventions that there is nothing for Hatcher to do, apart from have sex with the hero in front of a wood- effect headboard.

In the interests of contemporary relevance, I suggest that, next time, this little scene is appended to the script - Bond: "So, Q, what devilishly clever gadgets have your boys created for me this time?" Q (producing a small foil packet): "This, 007, is what we call a prophylactic. It's compact, it'll get you out of all sorts of sticky situations, and if inflated, may save you from drowning."

I Know What You Did Last Summer (18) is another ana- chronism that doesn't quite know how to handle itself. An attempt to repackage the stalk-and-slash genre for an audience who've heard of irony but who'd be hard-pressed to describe what it is, it's one of those films in which a teenage beauty queen has a zombie in her wardrobe. The plot involves a blood-smeared welly found on the road, a dumped corpse and a monster in a sou'wester pursuing a bunch of unremarkable teeny actors with a steel fishhook. It's left to Ann Heche to add a touch of quality. She turns in a well-judged performance as a recluse who guts flyblown fish in ahovel - Hollywood's punishment for coming out as a lesbian. But with The X-Files happily remaking drive-in, slice-and-dice flicks for the small screen, you have to wonder whether the multiplex is really the place for narratives like this. That said, there are several effective moments; when the heroine, Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), finds a cache of corpses in the ice-hold of a fishing boat, it's a real coup d'horreur. And the epilogue delivers a shock that'll fill your turn-ups with popcorn.

Joe Mantegna has had a bad year; second banana to a fruit pie possessed by demons in Thinner, a sidelined cop in Albino Alligator. Now he's sharing top billing with Kelly Lynch in George Hickenlooper's Persons Unknown (18), and ironically, "They Should Have Known Better" is the film's marketing tagline.

Perhaps he didn't read very far into Craig Smith's script; before the ridiculous finale, it musters some engagingly edgy scenes between a familiar bunch of LA lowlifes (the Hooker, the Disgraced Cop, the Junkie, the Small- time Psycho). It begins by developing a very attractive thriller scenario. Security expert Mantegna has fitted a video surveillance system in a workshop that's a front for laundering drug money, and the building is being spied on by a heist-hungry gang, who in turn are being observed by Mantegna. But once the action switches to a log cabin in the mountains, with gold- toothed Colombian thugs saying "hey, laydee", the film takes a dive into absurdity.

In Robert Dornhelm's A Further Gesture (15), IRA prisoner Sean Dowd (Stephen Rea) escapes from his H-block cell to New York, and soon becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate a Guatemalan Mr Big. It's a political thriller from which all the politics has been carefully spooned: Dowd's IRA past is a blank, and the Guatemalans (led by Alfred Molina in the moustache Tom Conti uses for racial impersonations) are amateurs for whom terrorism ispersonal revenge.

The initial prison breakout, shown in satisfying detail, is Dornhelm's most successful sequence. Dowd and his confederates have a charming air of olde-worlde gentlemanliness: they send a guard they've reluctantly shot to the Medical Officer and, once outside, risk capture by stopping to pick up a fallen comrade. And although it doesn't have the nerve or the ambition to tackle the morality of terrorism with much rigour, the film is remarkable in one respect: with its all-dancing Latinos, a pop- eyed, knife-wielding black gangsta and a crazily OTT Italian restaurateur, this must be the first film ever made in which the Irish characters are the least stereotyped.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 12.