THE CRITICS : Issues, tissues, missed opportunities

It's A dud week, frankly, though no period of seven days which includes the sight of Jack Nicholson scowling bleakly from the gloom can be considered wholly unredeemed, even when that vision comes in a film stuffed with pat ideas about redemption. At heart, The Crossing Guard (15) isn't much more than an issue-of-the-week movie about the guilt and rage left behind after a little girl is killed in a drunk-driving accident, but its writer/director, Sean Penn, whips up such a flurry of portent in its acting and shooting styles that he might as well be tackling Dostoevsky, or even Dante. The film's first shot is a slow-motion close-up of a stripper rubbing a flaming torch over her bare flesh. Why, this is Hell; and who is that over in the corner, devouring Tennessee whisky? It's Jack, Prince of Darkness.

Penn intercuts between this low-rent club and a therapy group, at which Anjelica Huston is listening with dignified tears to a story of bereavement. Then comes the first sign of directorial nerves, not to say incompetence: Penn has to resort to on-screen titles to explain to us that she is the Mother, and that old Beelzebub back in the strip joint is the Father. Wicked souls might well conclude that Penn has taught himself about directing from a book, read all the late chapters about fancy business like thematic montage - the drift of this cross-cut overture is that boozing and slobbering over naked floozies is Jack's personal form of therapy - but skipped the early chapters where it explains that you introduce characters by having them say, "The name's Bond ... James Bond," or whatever, rather than by writing their name-tag across the screen in big letters.

Anyway, with the introduction of a third face, that of David Morse, our drama is ready to roll. Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston play Freddy Gale and his former wife Mary, whose marriage was torn apart by their daughter's death; Morse is John Booth, the drinker who drove the fatal car. John has served his five years for manslaughter, and is coming back to stay with his parents - a prospect which delights Freddy, who is ticking off the days on his calendar until the moment he can go and blast the man's brains out. Freddy bungles the job, however, and, slightly thrown by John's stoical attitude towards his imminent demise, allows him a few days of grace. Much of the body of the film takes place between this reprieve and the final chase and shoot-out sequence, which borders on the unwatchable, and ends on an image of quite dumbfounding sentimentality.

Not all of it is rubbish. In fact, Nicholson is on really tremendous form here - his Freddy is a fascinating monster, rancid with misery, stewing in vengeance and bourbon, amazed by his weariness - and if Penn managed to suggest that Freddy belonged on the same planet as the other characters, the film might actually have been distinguished. He doesn't. Take the scenes between Nicholson and Huston (fine throughout, and badly underused). Though they're potent, they don't carry any sense of a shared emotional history - and that despite the two actors' heavily publicised relationship a few years back. The man once married to that woman might have turned to drink and whores in his despair, but what would have possessed him to decorate his new apartment in Early Pimp, with black satin walls to match the black satin sheets?

Speaking of whores, one of John's pals solemnly informs him at one point that there are two types of chicks: women and ladies. No gentleman, surely, would go along with this bar-room philosophy, but The Crossing Guard seems perilously close to a forensic demonstration of the point. Freddy is so hungry for sleaze that he'll duck out on a date with a stripper to go in search of prostitutes (Penn shoots a night gallery of their faces with leering pathos). John, on the other hand, is awarded a real lady, in the clean-limbed person of JoJo (Robin Wright), who sees through the man's scarred and burly features to the trapped soul behind, and calls him beautiful. Somewhere deep beneath all this dodgy matter, probably better left unearthed, are some therapised notions about guilt and reconciliation which might make sound clinical sense but haven't done much for Penn's directorial powers. And was it altogether tactful to dedicate a film about the evil of drink-driving to the late Charles Bukowski, American literature's champion lush?

Last Dance (18), directed by Bruce Beresford, is Sharon Stone's redundant (we've seen Casino) attempt to go legit by wiping off her slap, mussing up her curls and adopting a sullen Dixie twayng as a murderer on Death Row. Rob Morrow plays the feckless rich-kid lawyer who becomes too involved in her case, and discovers that her original defence culpably suppressed the information that, when she bludgeoned two teenagers to death, she was on crack. (Oh well, that's OK then.) In a spooky way, as Dame Edna would have it, they both end up redeemed. One all-too-obvious gripe about the film's ethical burden is that, however lightly cosmeticised, Stone's looks both canonise her character and serve as a dramatic distraction. Red-blooded chaps in the audience will have just one thing on their minds, and it won't be capital punishment.

Despite its title, Silence of the Hams (15) is more than just a silly spoof of the Hannibal Lecter horror show. It's also a cretinous spoof of Psycho and a more than usually witless plagiarism of the Airplane/Naked Gun formula. Ezio Greggio, described in the publicity blurb as "Italy's Number One Comic" (Alexei Sayle used to have a good riff about this ploy: compare "The Bleach Salesmen, Britain's Number One Punk Band") though still justifiably obscure in the Anglo- Saxon world, wrote, produced and directed this smelly dog, and also, possibly by way of obeisance to the methods of John Landis, coaxed cameo appearances from the likes of Joe Dante, John Carpenter and Landis himself. While the English language does contain words adequate to convey quite how painfully its gags belly-flop, it barely seems worth deploying them.

The NFT is offering a brief big-screen run for a John Badham thriller, Nick of Time (no cert), which has mysteriously been denied the standard courtesy awarded to Silence of the Hams and will be released on video soon. It's hard to understand the slight. As usual, Badham's movie is a professional, if gratuitously implausible entertainment, with a premise that would like to be known as "Hitchcockian" when it grows up. A regular Joe (Johnny Depp), accountant by trade, climbs off a train one day with his little daughter and is suddenly hijacked by a murderous sleazeball (played, in a triumph of imaginative casting, by Christopher Walken). The sleazeball puts a gun to his daughter's head and explains that, unless the poor sap pulls off a political assassination for him, the moppet gets it between the dewy eyes. What follows is meant to take place in real time, and though Badham cheats on this compact like a card sharp, one feels reasonably inclined to go along for the ride.

Only two or three members of the press corps sweated it right through to the end of the BFI's triplet of short films by newish directors, which may be an indictment of our collective philistinism, though other interpretations are possible. Far and away the most palatable of the three is The Hunger Artist (no cert), which updates Kafka's spare fable to contemporary London, thus allowing for plenty of ado about homelessness, street drugs and the advertising industry. For those who love the writer, it will probably appear a little - no, a great deal too chic and knowing, but it does achieve an other-worldly kind of melancholy, as if we were watching its cityscapes through the eyes of an alien who's mislaid his Prozac. And the ending is quite sublime, thanks to Alfred Brendel and JS Bach.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.