Together, Gena Rowlands and her husband John Cassavetes reinvented American film-making. Without them, no Jim Jarmusch, no Gus Van Sant, no Kevin Smith. In films like Shadows, Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes' camera and Rowlands's performance occupied the same raw, nervous, drunkenly improvisational territory: a perfect marriage of styles. In Unhook the Stars (15), their son, Nick Cassavetes, goes behind the camera to pursue the disconcertingly Freudian project of attempting to marshal his mother's stormy energies.

Rowlands stars as Mildred, a widow who reinvents herself through a relationship with the dysfunctional family next door. After her abusive partner walks out, neighbour Monica (a Martini-sodden Marisa Tomei) needs someone to watch over her smart-but-silent son JJ (Jake Lloyd) while she puts in double shifts at the creamery. A one-off favour hardens into routine, and Mildred soon finds herself re-enacting scenes from the childhood of her own son, Ethan (David Sherrill), now a spoilt and pretentious braggart, with a matching wife. Mildred's story is partly about how she reconstructs her attitudes towards her two absent children, but autobiography adds other complexities. Cassavetes has said that he cherry-picked incidents from his own childhood to render the film's key relationship, between Mildred and JJ.

This may explain the compelling authenticity with which Cassavetes invests the mother-son subject. Other plot-strands - an unlikely romantic interest (Gerard Depardieu as a trucker from Quebec), the somewhat overwritten antagonism between Mildred and her malcontent daughter (Moira Kelly) - don't quite convince. But the emotional commerce between Rowlands and her charge is the rich result of careful labour.

Although Cassavetes crafts his primal scenes with honesty and humour, he also has a powerful instinct for the brazen and manipulative. Unlike the father, the son propels his plot with a deal of mainstream schmaltz ("You're my best friend," Mildred keeps informing JJ. We don't need telling twice), and this oversweetens the relationships on display. Nick Cassavetes didn't learn this from his dad's frantic chamber cinema. It comes from being under the influence of a more cynical, synthetic tradition.

Unhook the Stars manages to survive these sugary incursions. But there's little except forced cuteness in One Fine Day (PG), Michael Hoffman's saccharine remake of every Hollywood movie you've seen about a couple who don't get on at first, but - hey! - they're in love by the fourth reel. George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer play single parents forced into a hellish day of juggling their respective careers and offspring. If this was real life, they'd have screwed up in the first half hour. But here, the narrative allows them to meet every challenge with much huffing and puffing, but few serious cock-ups. Hoffman's decision to show us the clock at the end of every scene exposes a bending of time worthy of Stephen Hawking (Carnegie's deli to the fountain in Central Park in about three minutes, for example). And though the film gestures towards soft-centred social commentary, there's a predictable sexism at work. It's only Pfeiffer who's forced to make a speech to her bosses about her priorities; Clooney is spared the indignity.

In its desire, moreover, to get straight down to what it obviously considers to be hilarious bickering, One Fine Day sacrifices the logic of its protagonists' romance - the script overemphasises sparring and smirking, until it becomes difficult to decode Pfeiffer and Clooney's decision to spend the final frames in each other's arms. It's as if the movie assumes that, because we've seen Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, or Hepburn and Cary Grant, do this sort of thing so well, we can fill in the chemistry from memory.

There's more generic recycling going on in City of Industry (18), John Irvin's suitcase-of-money thriller with a scraggy plot from the reservoir dogs' home. As Battlestar Galactica limped along behind Star Wars, so films like this follow the Tarantino lead. Harvey Keitel - as if you couldn't guess - is Roy Egan, drafted into a diamond heist by his younger brother (Timothy Hutton), and double-crossed by short-fused gunboy Skip Kovich (Stephen Dorff). Unfortunately, Roy is a glum and uninteresting part, laconic to the point of blankness. Keitel snarls his way round LA like a pickled walnut with a grudge against society, growling lines like, "I'm my own police," and busting the collective asses of various smalltime Mr Bigs. If you feel as if you've seen it all somewhere before, you have.

Q: What is Jean-Claude Van Damme for? No persuasive answer is provided by The Quest (18), the Belgian bruiser's latest English-as-a-second-language epic. It's the sort of movie that makes you wish you'd been there at the script conference: "So, Jean-Claude plays this stilt-walking, kick- boxing Pierrot who looks after a gang of street urchins in 1920s New York. Okay? On the run from the Mafia, he ends up on a boat full of Lascars, and just as they're about to razor his triceps, up sails Roger Moore, cooing, 'The name's Dobbs. Edgar Dobbs.'" Well, it made the bosses at Universal reach straight for their cheque-books. The rest of the narrative involves something called the Ghan-gheng, an international boxing tournament staged in the "Lost City" by a bunch of Tibetan monks - invitation by scroll only. (Even the people who live here refer to it as the "Lost City", which must make it difficult getting home from the pub of a night.) Mercifully, irony-blindness produces unintentional hilarity: the High Priest pulls balls out of a bag, declaring fixtures like "Africa versus Scotland!" The Scottish team, of course, sport kilts and tam o'shanters. And somebody forgot to tell Jean-Claude that Africa isn't a country.

Van Damme not only came up with the plot, but also occupies the director's chair. His efforts have produced a testament to his narcissism that's less thoughtful than the average Mexican wrestling movie. I don't believe there are people in the world stupid enough to find this satisfying. If there are, I'd prefer they didn't write in.

This week's other martial-arts offering, Rumble in the Bronx (15), is a grandly superior genre entry: its star, Jackie Chan, so jaw-droppingly agile he makes Van Damme look like Muffin the Mule. Also, the film's keen sense of its own absurdity is instantly endearing. There's pure joy in Chan's improbable acrobatics, made all the more appealing by tempering Bruce Lee fisticuffs with engaging comic naivete. His publicity material claims him as a successor to Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and although you could argue that a sequence in which Chan is dragged behind a speeding hovercraft alludes to Keaton's The General, Chan's combination of spectacular slapstick with sentimental moralism (he spends much of the movie defending a wheelchair-bound orphan from trigger-happy gangsters) makes him more like a Pacific version of Norman Wisdom.

The most shocking thing about the new British S&M comedy, Preaching to the Perverted (18), is that it was made at all. The second most shocking thing is that this feeble, empty, ill-judged stuff could have been produced by conspicuously talented people like Tom Bell, Guinevere Turner and Our Friends in the North director Stuart Urban. It has no particular thesis to offer on the subject of sado-masochism, nor enough good gags to function as smutty farce. And surely, after Tory MPs have been found dead with nylon and citrus-fruit accessories, it's no longer startling to suggest that they might enjoy caning their secretaries. Ken Russell might have made a fair crack at this material, but here, tired sub-Ortonisms fall flat. Just imagine a trussed turkey with a butt-plug stuffed up its behind.

Which leaves me a short paragraph to note the rerelease of the colour version of Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete (U). I'll stick my neck out and confess that I remain impervious to the pleasures of his films, and re-watching this one did nothing to assuage my sense that there's something disingenuous at the heart of his humour. I'm not convinced by critiques of mechanisation which use high-tech experimental film processes to construct images of low-tech nostalgia. But I'm an isolated sceptic surrounded by tut-tutting Tatiphiles, so won't labour the point.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 15.

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