FEVER PITCH

Director:David Evans. Starring: Colin Firth, Ruth Gemmell, Neil Pearson, Lorraine Ashbourne, Mark Strong, Holly Aird, Ken Stott (15)

In adapting his novel for the screen, Nick Hornby has shifted the focus of his autobiographical hymn to Arsenal onto the romance between English teacher Paul and his uptight colleague Sarah, turning it into a conventional and most implausible battle of the stereotypes.

Paul loves football. Sarah loves - well, holidays and home-making and girlie things like that. Anyway, it's not important what Sarah loves, because this is Paul's story.

It begins with him coming to love football after his dad takes him to see Arsenal simply because he's run out of other things with which to entertain him. These flashbacks are easily the film's most convincing sections. Its only authentic relationships exist here; not only the hopeful father trying to keep his son happy, but also the eagerness of both Paul's mother and sister to join in with this newfound passion. And it's the only time that the film's desperate endorsement of football's pleasures comes close to proving infectious: Paul's first glimpse of a packed football stadium, with the field stretched out below him like an ocean, is thrillingly conveyed.

Such excitement soon vanishes in the latter-day scenes. It was a wise move to resist staging reconstructions of actual matches - with the exception of games glimpsed on television. The camera focuses only on the stands, where Paul and his friends react according to the match being played off-screen. Mercifully, the male bonding angle is largely underplayed, being confined to the silent goofy grins which pass between father and son. But these are characters you'd cross a busy motorway to avoid; it's hard to recall another film which has showed so little insight into such an unappealing bunch of people over such an excessive running time.

As Fever Pitch represents it, football remains an exclusively male domain - even Sarah's attempts to swot up on the subject are met with derision from Paul. What's more, the game provides the key to some kind of unspoken respect. Paul has a livelier class to teach, it seems, precisely because of his well-known commitment to football. Sarah, the film argues, needs to loosen up a bit.

We first see her self-righteously warning her pupils that they must address her as Ms not Miss, a fair enough request, but one which the script presents as a deep, irrecoverable flaw. When Hornby does finally concede that Paul's devotion to Arsenal makes him as impossible to live with as Sarah's severity is, it's too late: he has already mounted enough impassioned defences of the football fan's tragic tendencies to prove that his film's loyalties lie only with its hero. This may also be due to Colin Firth's very likeable performance, which provides an inevitable and unfair contrast with Ruth Gemmell, who has clearly been instructed to imagine her character as a member of the SS.

There's a certain amount of self-deprecation on Hornby's part, as there was in his book (and as there must be in the life of any Arsenal fan). The director, David Evans, inserts some nice sly touches on the soundtrack - for instance, having a radio switch from playing "Are You Ready to Be Heart-Broken?" to "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish", songs which could refer respectively to the lot of an Arsenal fan and to Paul's football obsession. Naturally, noticing these gags leaves you guilty of the same pedantry which leads Paul to file his record collection alphabetically. But in a film that is this short on charm, you grab at such small pleasures the way Paul clings to Arsenal's every goal.

A SELF-MADE HERO

Director:Jacques Audiard. Starring:Mathieu Kassovitz, Anouk Grinberg (15) (subtitles)

At the end of the Second World War, the young loner Albert Dehousse leaves a disappointing marriage to be a beggar in Paris, unsure of where his life will lead him, and confident only of his talent for deception. But he meets a con artist who advises him on how to get in with all the right people, and soon the shy, wide-eyed Albert is building a reputation for himself as a Resistance hero.

This warm, witty film handles some serious issues in a deceptively light fashion. In fact, you may be surprised at the emotional power which brims over in the last 30 minutes, due in equal parts to the subtle script and direction, and a magical and versatile performance from Kassovitz (who last impressed as the director of La Haine).

There are some theatrical touches here, such as the decision to include shots of musicians playing the film score, the way Lindsay Anderson used Alan Price in O Lucky Man! These arch moments remind us of the artifice of cinema, while Kassovitz's complex portrayal immerses us in the fiction - what you end up with is an intelligent and accessible balance between the two.

TOKYO FIST

Director:Tsukamoto Shinya. Starring: Fujii Kahory (18) (subtitles)

From the director of the relentlessly imaginative Tetsuo films comes this oppressive portrait of the transformation which one man and his girlfriend undergo when they come in contact with a high-school friend who has become a boxer. The film's style is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks - it's a barrage of different styles and colours - with the only consistency to be found in the sado-masochistic imagery and the quick-fire editing, which seems to have been carried out entirely at random. A recurring scene of a man banging his head against a wall pretty much sums up the effect the film has on you. But the absurdly brutal boxing sequences, in which the camera becomes an invisible third fighter in the ring, come close to matching the gruesome splendour of Shinya's earlier films.

HARD MEN

Director:JK Amalou. Starring: Vincent Regan, Ross Boatman, Lee Ross (18)

This story of a day in the life of three young London gangsters under the thumb of their vicious boss (played by real-life hood "Mad" Frankie Fraser), is played out with an obscene energy and lust for gore borrowed from Tarantino and his imitators. And you'll find the same mixture of startling violence and morbid humour, as Speed and Bear desperately try to prevent Tone from jacking in his life as a heavy in favour of the straight and narrow.

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