RANSOM

Director: Ron Howard. Starring: Mel Gibson, Rene Russo (15)

Imagine that Mel Gibson could be convincing in a film that didn't require him to waive a gun or even throw a single punch until the last five minutes. Then imagine that the film was a kidnapping thriller directed by Hollywood golden boy Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Parenthood). Then - and here's the hardest part - imagine that the film turned out to be an intense and sometimes cruel examination of the fractures which appear in supposedly stable relationships under pressure. It's sounds far-fetched but it's true: Ransom is the first Ron Howard movie to haunt rather than desert the mind after the credits have rolled, and the first one to pose no major threat to diabetics.

Tom Mullen (Gibson) is an airline tycoon whose young son is kidnapped, and a ransom of $2m is demanded. The FBI moves into his penthouse and engineers a plot to sabotage the kidnappers during the ransom drop. But when it goes horribly wrong, Tom instigates a potentially dangerous plan of his own, appearing on television to offer the ransom money as a reward for the return of his son.

The final act changes this character study into a revenge thriller, a transformation which is temporarily gratifying and yet diminishes some of the film's emotional power. Until then, it's pleasingly unpredictable. Gibson walks a tightrope between vulnerable and volatile, but the real surprise of the film is its unexpected ambiguity. As you'd expect from any screenplay which Clockers author Richard Price had had a hand in, the distinction between good and evil is fuzzy, to say the least. The film even manages to find sympathy with the kidnappers, inter-cutting shots of a harassed female captor with corresponding close-ups of the boy's mother, so that his real and temporary guardians become almost interchangeable.

EXTREME MEASURES

Director: Michael Apted. Starring: Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman (15)

Extreme Measures is a hospital horror story that's more Coma than The Kingdom. It's tense, if not unsettling, and paced with great skill. You may even find yourself watching open-mouthed from between your fingers, either in fear of what you're seeing, or in disbelief at plot holes which are badly in need of stitches.

The film opens magnificently, with two fat naked men bursting from a basement door in New York, burped out into the middle of the night. They are clutching onto each other, swaddling themselves in sheets of plastic, and gibbering as though they've just escaped midway through a lobotomy. That's not far from the truth, as Dr Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant) discovers when he treats one of the men and finds irregularities in both heartbeat and hospital records.

When his colleagues become flustered by his snooping, Guy knows he's onto something, and begins a hunt which leads him to a group of underground nomads - the ethnically balanced Mole people, who appear to live a far more harmonious life than their street-level counterparts, apart from the annoying problem of occasionally being kidnapped and experimented on by the sinister Dr Myrick (Gene Hackman) in his Swiss, hi-tech laboratory.

Shades of early Cronenberg prevail (acknowledged by a cameo from the controversial Canadian), and director Michael Apted takes the dark themes seriously enough to distract from some minor misjudgements, such as christening a pair of FBI agents Burke and Hare.

LOOKING FOR RICHARD

Director: Al Pacino. Starring: Al Pacino, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin (12)

This documentary/ work in progress/ adaptation about and around Richard III begins as a rallying call to souls untouched by Shakespeare. Pacino ostensibly sets out to discover how we can understand Shakespeare's plays, how Americans can perform them, how they can reach those audiences which remain impervious to the writings, passion and profundity - and how on earth you can possibly make a film about these things.

The answer is that you can't. Which Pacino seems to realise, if his picture's rag-bag structure is anything to go by. Initially, the concept is fairly charming: polling actors, scholars and members of the public to construct a collage of opinions; interspersing these with attempts to cast and rehearse a production of the play, and ending with that cast's interpretation of a handful of scenes, augmented by Pacino's occasional commentary. With the exception of Kevin Spacey as Buckingham, few of the actual performances sparkle, perhaps because they're not nearly as interesting as the unscripted performers - notably an unhinged Vanessa Redgrave, and John Gielgud impersonating his own Spitting Image puppet. The result falls way short of the ambition, and much of the narration is reduced to merely explaining the play. We have York Notes for that.

CARLA'S SONG

Director: Ken Loach. Starring: Robert Carlyle, Oyanka Cabezas, Scott Glenn (15)

This combines some of the most truthful, touching work that Ken Loach has ever been responsible for with a final hour of numbing banality which you can scarcely believe is part of the same piece.

Carlyle is fierce and touching as George, a Glaswegian bus driver who meets Carla (Oyanka Cabezas) when he defends her from a ticket inspector after she tries to ride his bus without paying. George is hooked. He trails the enigmatic Nicaraguan around Glasgow, finds her a new flat and temporarily hijacks a double-decker to take her on a picnic. But his and the film's troubles start when he accompanies her back to Nicaragua and encourages her to face the deep, dark secrets in her past.

All the precious chemistry between the lead actors is lost once the picture leaves Glasgow, and we are asked to swallow clumsy rhetoric, unconvincing characterisation, and a portrait of the Sandinistas which is something like the "ahh-look-at-the-natives" function served by the American Indians in Dances with Wolves.

For a more lucid picture of Nicaragua's history, read Salman Rushdie's The Jaguar's Smile. And if you want to remember just how good Ken Loach can be, then leave Carla's Song after the first hour.

QUADROPHENIA

Director: Franc Roddam. Starring: Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash (15)

As one Who-based musical ends its run in the West End, another begins. But what sets Quadrophenia apart from Tommy is its grounding in a salty reality where flights of fantasy are temporary, and folk heroes end up in a nine-to-five job like those who worship them.

The other difference from Tommy? The music in Carla's Song is a depressing dirge which at best detracts from the film's power, and at worst overstates emotions to the point of absurdity. But it's saved by a feral performance from Phil Daniels, which needs to be seen by anyone young enough to be labouring under the misapprehension that the peak of his career was singing with Blur.

He plays Jimmy, a teenage Jack the Lad immersed in the Mod lifestyle: he's got the parka, the Fred Perry wardrobe, and the Lambretta embellished with mirrors. What he hasn't got is Steph (Leslie Ash), though he plans to remedy that situation during the Bank Holiday outing to Brighton, where the Mods are preparing for a serious ruck with the Rockers.

As the riots fade, the mood turns considerably darker as Jimmy begins to question his life and sees his dreams crushed along with his Lambretta. Eighteen years after its original release, the film still feels urgent and compelling.

The only irrevocable damage which the intervening period has wrought is revealed in the casting of a minor but pivotal part: was 1979 really so long ago that audiences could accept the utterly preposterous notion of Sting playing a guru of cool? They were such innocent times.

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