Speed 2: Cruise Control approached these shores in a squall of gale-force raspberries - first there were terrible reviews and an apathetic box office in the States, and then came Monday's press conference at which the film's star, Sandra Bullock, went public about her own mediocrity. "Just because your films make money people think you can act," she admitted, in a moment of breathtaking candour. Rather unchivalrously, I'm going to second her on that. Bullock has exceptionally good teeth and all the grace of a Kay's catalogue model, but that's about it. She is, however, the least of Speed 2's problems.

The original Speed - an action-adventure version of On the Buses starring Bullock and Keanu Reeves - was fast-moving enough to make the epithet "high octane" the critical cliche of 1994. The sequel, however, is a pink- knuckle ride that finds Bullock and her fellow B-lister Jason Patric (Hollywood's answer to Robson Green) trapped on board a 459-foot luxury cruise liner. As others have pointed out before me, luxury cruise liners are not really noted for their breakneck velocity. This, I believe is the point of them. (Much better, surely, to have set it on a train and called it Speed 2: All Stations via Lewisham.)

Had the cast been stuck astride director Jan de Bont's camera, there would have been more scope for excitement. He swoops desperately around the chugging ship to lend a sense of urgency, and even dubs "whoosh" noises on to his giddy whip-pans, but he can't prevent long shots of the vessel sauntering through the Pacific from looking like a Judith Chalmers programme beefed up with faux-Jerry Goldsmith chords.

As for what's happening on board, well, the plot is something to do with the Machiavellian machinations of John Geiger (a palsied, goggle-eyed Willem Dafoe), who keeps leeches in his sponge bag and is, as Jason Patric's character helpfully points out, a "computer psycho". Which means he's hell-bent on setting off the fire alarms, sabotaging the navigation systems with a set of exploding golf clubs, and ramming the ship into a Caribbean port.

Meanwhile, there are a variety of comic and sentimental stereotypes like Deaf Girls and Fat People running around the corridors of the Seabourn Legend, giving events the air of a 1970s all-star disaster movie for which someone forgot to recruit any stars. Which is a shame, because if the poopdeck had been packed with drowning celebrities, de Bont could have supplied innocent pleasure along the lines of Airport 75. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Stephanie Powers and Charlton Heston are all alive and employable. Moreover, if he'd taken the plunge and cast William Shatner as the captain, it might have made sense of Brian McCardie's role as a Scots navigator who fiddles with wires and blusters things like, "I cannae explain it, sir ... we're losing power all over the ship!" The nearest to a celebrity cameo is an on-board cabaret spot from UB40, mooching their way through I Can't Help Falling in Love with You. Unfortunately, we're denied the sight of them scrambling for the lifeboats.

Having expended so much energy trying to make us believe that the preferred transport of the zimmer-frame set is hurtling through the waves at Mach One, de Bont seems to lose his grip on the directorial basics. Like continuity, for enstance. Loveable deaf girl Drew (Christine Firkins) climbs up a lift shaft, and somehow manages to emerge in the ship's hold; Patric magically gains a navy blue shirt after having discarded the white number ripped in his attempt to jam the ship's propellors, and there is some brazen cheating with the imminence of the liner's collision with an oil tanker.

De Bont also seems keen to do his bit for the cause of clanging literalism, which makes it difficult to distinguish attempts at ironic humour from pure cackhandedness. "It's coming straight for us!" yells a distressed crewman on the tanker's bridge, picking up on something that an audience unschooled in the details of radar navigation surely would have done some minutes previously. And we see Willem Dafoe poring over items of hi-tech equipment with enormous Batman-style explanatory labels like FIBER-OPTIC CONVERTOR. De Bont extends this policy to machinery on the ship, and, given the quality of the film, it seems reckless for him to have stuck up so many notices with the word BILGE written on them.

Speed 2 is this week's only new movie, but beyond the multiplexes, a clutch of Indian-themed re-releases form cinema's contribution to the independence anniversary celebrations. Ritwik Ghatak's 1960 The Cloud- Capped Star (no cert), looks as if it was shot on glass plates: the images are pinpoint sharp and deep as the Ganges. Bengali soap opera with a Marxist substructure, Ritwik's film is the tale of Nita (Supriya Choudhury), a Calcutta girl with prospects who is carelessly exploited by her family. Her descent into madness allows Ghatak to construct an experimental soundtrack that is shockingly at odds with the classicism of his images: violent whiplashes, shrill radiophonic whines, and a final, monstrous scream from the heroine that echoes around the mountains where she seeks sanctuary.

Merchant-Ivory has dusted down a trio of subcontinental oldies, and these offer an opportunity to reassess work that predates their current immersion in the Laura Ashley school of film-making. Taking them in chronological order, Shakespeare Wallah (PG) features a 17-year-old Felicity Kendal with all her familiar acting mannerisms already formed (those cross eyebrows, that oh you expression). She plays daughter to her real parents, Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddel, in the semi-autobiographical story of a troupe of British actors coming to terms with their marginalisation in a confident, independent India. This is post-colonial ennui examined with a wry critical edge, but watching it now also reveals it as the near relation of films like A Taste of Honey. Indeed, the relationship between the characters played by Rita Tushingham and Paul Danquah in the Salford-set classic isn't far from the romance between Lizzie (Kendal jnr) and her glamourous suitor Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) in Shakespeare Wallah.

Made exactly a decade later, 1975's Autobiography of a Princess (PG) has Madhur Jaffrey as the eponymous noblewoman, feeding on memories of the Raj in her shabby-genteel London flat. James Mason plays Cyril Sahib, an Englishman with mixed feelings about his time in India (a character loosely based on E.M. Forster - in whose novels Merchant-Ivory would later make a uncritically nostalgic retreat). It is the shortest and slightest of the trilogy, and its reliance on the protagonists' discussion of footage from a BBC documentary now seems an unwieldy device. But the speeches are articulate and evocative, and Mason is bright with starry delicacy.

Exquisitely costumed, and shot in decorative colour, Heat and Dust (15) occasionally evokes Carry On Up the Khyber, but Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script is deepened by its borrowing of structural complexity from The French Lieutenant's Woman, released the previous year. The doubled plot is set in both the 1920s and 80s, and linked by Nickolas Grace's Harry, a version of the Cyril/Forster character - an Englishman whose quasi-sexual relationship with an Indian prince offers another take on the British love affair with India. In the later era, Anne (Julie Christie) traces the events of the 1920s, in which her great aunt Olivia (Greta Scaachi) became pregnant by Prince Nawab (Shashi Kapoor). It's finely-tuned melodrama with a keen sense of the modern as well as the Edwardian-picturesque. It also moves through its 130-odd minutes with an assurance that eludes directors like - for instance - Jan de Bont. So, this week's tip is never mind the Bullocks, go for an Indian instead.

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