The novelist Gilbert Adair once wrote an amusing confessional article about the difficulties of comprehension he always experiences with the first 15 minutes of a Shakespeare play - those expository scenes in which minor aristocrats and courtiers with names like Northumberland, Bushey, Trellis and Watford stand around telling each other things they already know in knotty, elliptical syntax, baffling to any unscholarly ear which has not yet shaken off the quotidian rhythms of the stalls bar and attuned itself to the ebb and flow of iambs.

One of the two plays in the canon which begins with a Greatest Quote (the other is Twelfth Night), Richard III (15) presents few such problems of linguistic acclimatisation. Just to be on the safe side, however, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine have chosen, in their wildly idiosyncratic version for the screen, to defer Richard's well-known observations on the fine seasonal weather for a good 10 minutes. Instead of rhetorical plums, the screenwriter/star and director offer us a tank crashing through a wall, commandos in gas masks and men being blasted to death with service pistols and sten guns. C'est magnifique, as French drama critics used to say, mais ce n'est pas Jacques Pere.

Though not all of it is pitched at quite such an eye-pummelling level of violence, the rest of the film, a crisp two hours, is no less cheeky. When it's not coming on like a thick-eared action movie (Die Bard?), it rifles uninhibitedly through all the tricks of other popular genres, from serial-killer movie (Richard's wooing of Lady Anne - Kristin Scott Thomas - is set in a morgue; by the last reel, she's a junkie) to horror fantasy. In one quietly tasteful scene, the pre-orgasmic pleasures of Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr), who is being fellated by an air hostess, turn to mortal agony as a blade shoots up through his guts from beneath the bed. You almost expect Freddy Krueger to show up, and you very nearly get him: when Lord Stanley (Edward Hardwicke, an admirably grave presence) has his nightmare about Richard, McKellen wheels suddenly round to snarl and chomp at him in the form of a boar, or were-boar, his face hideously distorted by prosthetic tusks. This is not, perhaps, the most delicate Shakespearian film on record, but it's a powerful contender for the title of most entertaining.

Freely adapted from Richard Eyre's successful staging for the National, Richard III is set in a hypothetical 1930s in which an awful civil war has just ended with the death of Henry VI, and the throne has passed to Edward IV (John Wood) and - a nod to the Wallis Simpson affair - his American wife Elizabeth (Annette Bening). While it doesn't go as far as Forbidden Planet, which put The Tempest in outer space, this verges on Shakespeare as classy sci-fi - the "alternative history" sci-fi of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle or Sarban's The Sound of His Horn.

As anyone who has snoozed through a production of Coriolanus set in East Germany will report, the bright idea of updating Shakespeare to some politically sexy date is usually best strangled in its cradle, but the strangely fabricated time and place of this Richard III is a liberation: for one thing, it makes Loncraine's film an unexpected cousin to another fine British movie about an alternative reality, Michael Radford's 1984. It also provides the ideal justification for language of such polished artifice: why shouldn't the denizens of this uncanny world speak in eloquent pentameters?

Drawing on computer technology and an utterly inspired choice of location (Tony Burroughs, the production designer, deserves laurels), Richard III confects a Britain both familiar and weird. Its palace is St Pancras Chambers, digitally spirited on to the south bank of the Thames; the Bankside Power Station and County Hall provide the exterior and interior of the Tower of London; and the Queen's quarters are Walpole's Strawberry Hill. Architecture is supposed to be one of the prime resources of our film industry, but it's rare to see a British movie which uses buildings so wittily or so expressively: the lobby of the University of London's Senate House (1936) is the kind of place Bertolucci might have pounced on for The Conformist.

Those purists who fainted dead away around the paragraph where Rivers got it in the guts may now be screaming murder about violent outrage on the sacred text. They'll have a point, not so much because McKellen has sliced away huge tracts of speech and tinkered strategically with the remainder; but because all the sights and stunts can't help upstaging the poetry. (About the only verse that is given proper room to breathe is Clarence's soliloquy, "O, I have passed a miserable night", to which Nigel Hawthorne does more than justice.) There are times when the 101- things-to-do-with-a-dead-author ingenuity grows wearisome, and others where you find yourself amused at the conceit instead of seized by the drama. What repeatedly drags the film back on course is McKellen's performance, which is barnstorming without the faintest suspicion of ham and which richly deserves every superlative in the luvvy lexicon. It's hard, too, not to grin at a Richard III in which the usurping monarch, blasting away at enemy aircraft from an armoured car that has stuck in the mud, yells: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom ..." Reader, I surrendered.

For the rest: The Birdcage (15) is Mike Nichols's highly profitable, highly professional, largely superfluous remake of La Cage aux Folles. Those young or monoglot enough never to have caught the original in any of its manifestations (play, musical, hit film and sequels) may well laugh immoderately at this Americanisation of the French farce about the gay couple (Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) who have to pretend to be a regular husband and wife throughout an agonising evening with the conservative in-laws-to-be (Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest) of the son one of them produced in a night of heterosexual indiscretion two decades before. The rest will fidget at its slowness, titter occasionally, admire the restraint of Robin Williams's performance - oddly enough, this may be his best near-straight role - and the subtle comedy of Hackman's, laugh out loud at the first good joke about John Major in a Hollywood film and understand, at last, why Are You Being Served? is a perennial hit on American PBS.

Sudden Death (18) is a flashy hostage drama directed by Peter Hyams, set in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena during an ice-hockey championship and patterned to within a whisker of a plagiarism suit on the first Die Hard. Jean-Claude Van Damme takes the Bruce Willis role as a notionally traumatised ex-fireman, single-handedly coping with a bunch of crims led by a sardonic bloke in a DJ (the amusing Powers Boothe). Its bang-for-buck ratio is quite high, and you may well relish the scene in which a baddy in a giant penguin suit is killed with a dishwasher. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Todd Haynes's Safe (15) is a mannered, torpid, doggedly affectless piece about a touchingly meek young woman (Julianne Moore) who becomes allergic to the late 20th century, and has to flee her affluent home for a New Age retreat and, ultimately, a sealed metal igloo. Some complicated ideas may well have been rattling around Haynes's head, and the film has been earnestly praised in some quarters, but a nasty whiff of counter- cultural snobbery hangs around much of it, and its po-faced ambiguities of tone seem not so much provocative as shifty.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.