Resurrection Man is about violence - its irrationality and its glamour. The picture is set in 1975 Belfast, and though the fashions and the music are grimly familiar, the city is not. In keeping with the stylised tone of the novel by Eoin McNamee, who also wrote the screenplay, this is Belfast re-imagined in the style of a penny dreadful. An eerie mist rolls through the streets in daylight, enveloping street corner preachers and gossipy mums with creaky prams; at night, the city comes alive with sordid eruptions of colour. A banana yellow Ford Escort caught under glaring street lights and the jet of blood from a punctured artery carry the same garish shock.

Marc Evans isn't the first director to make Belfast feel like a bad acid trip, or to conjure images which suggest he got a cut-price deal on coloured filters - Neil Jordan's debut feature, Angel, has already left a neon imprint on the memory. Neither is he the first film-maker to remove the immediate political significance from a Northern Irish story, since that objective was realised by Alan Clarke's Elephant, where an itinerary of killings were systematically stripped of all context. What Evans does do that is unusually daring is portray brutality itself as a character rather than an impulse, transforming the figure of the thuggish wide boy Victor Kelly, played by Stuart Townsend, into something like a physical embodiment of violence.

Victor idolises James Cagney, and gains his own kind of infamy when he becomes the protege of a local gangster who recognises in him the amorality of the born psychopath. As his reputation is bolstered by the random murders that he commits, selecting innocent men from the streets and carving them up with Stanley knives, Victor succumbs to all the usual vices: sex, drugs and a snazzy black Capri.

If you are going to choose an actor to convey the sexual allure of a violent lifestyle, then it had better be someone who an audience could believe they might suspend their principles for. Stuart Townsend is an actor of remarkable control and confidence. Stillness is an underrated quality in the cinema, but Townsend knows that an unwavering glare is worth a thousand vicious profanities.

A large proportion of his screen time is spent in tight close-up, staring straight at the camera. In one memorable shot, the blue baize of a pool table is reflected in his eyes. And his narcissism is transfixing. When he leads a woman into the bedroom, the first thing he does is admire himself in the mirror.

Many people will feel alienated by Resurrection Man because it gives you nothing to respond to on an emotional level. The central character is a serial killer whose pathology the film doesn't even condescend to explore - the experience couldn't be any more uncomfortable for an audience if you dusted their seats with itching powder. Yet the movie offers its own valuable rewards. Most obviously, it takes the emphasis away from motivation and narrative, and places it instead on metaphorical content. You are not just encouraged to view Resurrection Man as a commentary on the addictive relationship between human beings and violence, you are positively forced to.

Which isn't to suggest that Evans can't deploy his argument with some cruel humour. At one point, a man is kicked to death as Tiger Feet by Mud blares out of a pub jukebox. If you are the sort of unhinged person who spends their time making lists, you can add this to the one marked "Sick musical jokes in the movies", just ahead of the "Singing in the Rain" scene from A Clockwork Orange.

Running parallel to the story of Victor's rise is the tale of Ryan (James Nesbitt), a journalist who becomes obsessed with the wave of murders. When the reporter is finally invited to meet the man who has been providing his headlines, he finds him shirtless and inviting, his forearms gloved with blood. Evans has the camera linger over Victor, eroticising him, eroticising violence. This director has the enviable knack of making you want to look and turn away at the same time.

The danger of making a film that relies on metaphorical meaning or an exaggerated visual style - and Resurrection Man does both - is that any scenes which revert to realism are likely to appear incongruous. When Ryan encounters Victor, it is in a derelict bath house that is shot to resemble Dracula's lair, with its oppressive architecture, looming castle door and rain lashing the walls. The tone is deliberately bombastic, but the scene that follows, with Ryan returning to the girlfriend he has abused, is preposterous. He says, "I wanted to make a difference." She says, "I'm proud of you." The film falls to earth with a thud.

For the most part, Resurrection Man is a fine film, complicated yet utterly single-minded. One chink in its armour is a small betrayal of loyalties by the advertising campaign. At the foot of the film's poster is the line "Rated 18 for scenes of violence and torture", an enticing, calculated mock warning whose subtext is "It's really gory, honest." The film-makers and the advertising department are speaking different languages.