YOU DON'T EXPECT political even-handedness from Jim Sheridan. In the Name of the Father and Some Mother's Son were rousing, gloves-off polemics against the British establishment. But his new film, The Boxer (15) marks a significant shift in tone. This is no dewy-eyed tub-thumper. Instead, Sheridan offers drama that is honest, reflective and conciliatory. Indeed, a scene featuring a shocking car-bomb attack on a prominent RUC officer seems like a deliberate riposte to Neil Jordan's decision to play a similar moment in Michael Collins for sectarian laughs.

The plot is one of love behind - rather than across - the barricades. Former boxer and IRA man Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis, taciturn as a breeze-block) is released from prison and returns to his derelict council flat. In no time at all, he's installed his old coach, Ike Weir (a tumbledown Ken Stott) in the spare room, resumed relations with his childhood sweetheart Maggie (Emily Watson), started up a community gymnasium like the one in Angels With Dirty Faces, and repainted his living room in what looks like an expensive shade of Jocasta Innes Matisse Blue. But the local Republican bigwigs don't approve, as Ike is a known IRA detractor and Maggie is now married to a jailed Republican hero. (We don't discover what they think of the decor.)

Unfortunately, the grand romance that's supposed to bloom between Day- Lewis and Watson - the angle on which the film is being marketed - is sketchy and vapid. And it feels all the more unpersuasive when set against the convincing political background established by Sheridan, and the fine supporting performances he coaxes out of the middle-aged men in his cast. Brian Cox, for instance, as the local IRA head man, is fiercely watchable. He has the weary dignity of some butch babushka at the back of the vodka queue - but those sensuous lips, that axe-cut chin and deep-scored forehead might have been chiselled by Baselitz.

It's Ken Stott, however, who steals the film from under the noses of Day-Lewis and Watson. He breathes shabby, meths-scented life into the washed-up, down-and-out boxing coach who regains his self-respect by training Flynn for competition. Stott's performance is one of tremendous technical clarity. Watching him act is like seeing a shipwreck slowly reassemble before your eyes, and is reason enough to see the movie.

Another Irish-set story, Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy (15) is a messy, uninvolving adaptation of the Patrick McCabe novel. It stars the young Eamonn Owens as Francie Brady, a maladjusted 12-year-old who's a dab hand with the abattoir hatchet. As his drunken, Eddie Calvert-fixated father, Stephen Rea looks as sorry and shrivelled as the last turkey in the shop - possibly because he has to suffer the indignity of having immobile fake bluebottles stuck to his face, and is also forced to wear the most absurd orange wig in recent cinema history.

Stylistically, the movie is a pig's breakfast. Jordan apes the surrealism of East European cinema without revealing any instinct for it, and his attempts at twisted humour are similarly laboured. The source text is quality stuff, but Jordan simply doesn't find a visual language capable of communicating the irrational undercurrents of the original book, or even those which appear to be in his own script (co-written with McCabe). So when he introduces hairy-faced aliens, digitised mushroom clouds and Sinead O'Connor as a Lourdes-postcard Virgin Mary, it seemed more like desperate strainings for effect that effective images of derangement.

Somewhere near the beginning of The Postman (15), a gang of cut-throat soldiers have Kevin Costner's ass for breakfast. The ass, alas, is of the four-legged variety, and you soon realise that you've got two and a half more hours to wonder why, after Waterworld, Hollywood's least likeable leading man has been given another $100 million to pursue his dreary love- affair with himself. At least you know whom to blame for the grandiose awfulness of the film: Costner isn't just the star and the director of this sci-fi western. Nope. He co-produces, he sings the end title song ("You Didn't Have To Be So Nice"), and it looks like he's given supporting roles to three members of his own family (Anne, Lily and Joe Costner). For a guy with the goofy chinlessness of someone who's just removed his bottom teeth with a vacuum cleaner, Costner is mightily fond of pointing the camera at himself - when looking moody against tundra, preferably, or emoting cliches like "It doesn't have to be this way!" The plot tells of a feudal, post-apocalyptic world in which an attempt to restart the postal system helps human society get back on its feet. Opposed to the re-establishment of this public service are the villainous "Holnists", who - disappointingly - aren't acolytes of the urbane Blockbusters host, but a warrior clan who extol 20th-century self-help pseudo-philosophy. Fairly standard Star Trek stuff: William Shatner could have knocked it off in 45 minutes, but Costner takes a stolid three hours.

Sergei Bodrov's Prisoner of the Mountains (15) is a memorable, moving anti-war film that I'd warmly recommend to anyone, especially anyone on the UN security council. Filmed in Dagestan, just two hours' walk from the Chechen battle zone, it's the story of two Russian soldiers: the vainglorious Sasha (Oleg Menshikov, Moscow's answer to Kevin Kline) and Vania (Sergei Bodrov Jnr, the director's son), raw as a kapusta salad and half as useful in a fight. Held hostage by the inhabitants of a remote Caucasian village, the pair find themselves used as human minesweepers by Chechen guerrillas and befriended by the teenage daughter of their captor. Bodrov mixes local non-professional actors in with his cast, and this allows him to supplement his unfussy naturalism with a fascinating record of a unique people. He leads us gently into the rhythms of village life, affording a privileged view of its customs and habits - everything from bread-making to funeral rituals. And it's not all National Geographic travelogue. Bodrov has a fine taste in rough black comedy, and gets smart, sly work out of his leads as they're forced to adjust to the ascetic culture of their jailers. You'll certainly not forget the scene in which, manacled together, Sasha and Vania perform an extraordinary shimmying routine to "Let My People Go". A rare treat.

Whereas Bodrov uses Dagestan for Chechenya, Edgardo Cozarinsky makes Tallinn stand in for the Leningrad backstreets of Rothschild's Violin (PG), a patchily successful hybrid of political drama, biography and opera. The plot focuses on the relationship between the composer Shostakovich and his pupil Benjamin Fleischmann. Cozarinsky skilfully uses archive footage as an ironic running commentary, and the photography is simply breathtaking. But in the middle stretch - a fine performance of Fleischmann's eponymous operatic work, lip-synched by actors on location - Cozarinsky becomes the latest in a long line of directors to fail to persuade opera into a happy marriage with cinema.

Finally, All Over Me (15) is an attractive coming-of-age film about two New York girls who discover sex, drugs and riot-girl guitars, and get, like, really freaked out during one of those sultry, significant adolescent summers. It's the work of sister act Alex and Sylvia Sichel, who treat their cast of Courtney luvvies and Cobain clones with uncynical respect. But they should have got this movie together five years ago, when the subculture they celebrate was something cool rather than a neat subject for an MA thesis.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.