AFTER a promising start to his movie career, Matthew McConaughey has been playing it safe with a series of male lead roles in lightweight rom-coms.
His acting ability has hardly been stretched in The Wedding Planner, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past and Fool’s Gold, an insipid wodge of sun-soaked fluff.
But in crime drama THE LINCOLN LAWYER (15: Entertainment In Video), McConaughey shows that he’s not a one-trick pony.
He plays Mick Haller, a handsome, hard-drinking defence attorney who works from his chauffeured Lincoln Continental town car – the one with the NTGUILTY vanity plate.
Haller is happy to represent the lowest kind of criminals, but when he takes on the apparently straightforward and lucrative case of a rich kid (Ryan Phillippe) accused of the attempted murder of a prostitute, he discovers that what he’s been told is anything but the truth.
While much of it is pretty standard fare, there are enough twists, turns and surprises to keep the viewer keen and McConaughey more than holds his own.
There’s also a solid supporting cast featuring a long-haired William H. Macy, who’s always good value, and Marisa Tomei as Haller’s ex-wife.
> Liam Neeson is back in his action-man mode, as witnessed in Taken, in solid Euro thriller UNKNOWN (12: Optimum).
He’s an American botanist who awakens after a Berlin car accident to find no one recognises him.
This taut puzzler then shifts between identity-theft mystery and political intrigue before propelling headlong into an assassination-bureau conspiracy plot.
Neeson is a likeable everyman hero, January Jones is ice-cool as his wife and Diane Kruger is great as his taxi-driver saviour.
Meanwhile, Bruno Ganz engages as the ex-Stasi investigator trying to learn the sinister truth behind the intricate deception.
Despite some preposterous moments, trying to unravel the jigsaw clues is fun and changes are rung during the familiar ticking-bomb countdown finale.
> With its vivid portrayal of a grimy underworld, Australian gangster saga ANIMAL KINGDOM (15: Optimum) is a powerfully gripping piece of work.
A tense survival of the fittest ensues when socially inept teenager Joshua (newcomer James Frecheville) goes to live with his criminal in-laws after the death of his drug addict mother.
While learning the tricks of their Melbourne crime trade, he’s caught in the middle of a bitter feud between his family and renegade police.
The performances are terrific, with Ben Mendelsohn simmering rage personified as a man whose days of criminal supremacy are now behind him and Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver terrifying as the grandmother who’ll stop at nothing to protect her boys.
Guy Pearce, one of the best actors around, excels as a straight cop struggling to get Joshua to do the right thing.
> Gwyneth Paltrow proves she’s no slouch as a singer, but her undeniable charisma fails to elevate creaky melodrama COUNTRY STRONG (12: Sony).
Sparks fly between a young, recovering-addict country singer (Paltrow) and her husband/manager (real-life country star Tim McGraw).
As she struggles to revive her once chart-topping career, manipulated by hubby, her on-off lover from the detox centre she’s recently left warns that it could be too soon for another shot of fame and that a relapse may be around the corner.
Attempts are made to gain inspiration from Oscar-winning Crazy Heart and Robert Altman’s epic Nashville, but the script is full of cliches and often stumbles into mediocre soap-opera territory.
> Naomi Watts is the driving force in FAIR GAME (12: Entertainment One), the dramatised account of the scandal surrounding CIA operative Valerie Plame.
She had her cover deliberately blown by the Bush administration in 2003, apparently in response to a critical newspaper article by her ex-diplomat husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) about the reasons for invading Iraq.
Watts gives a thoroughly convincing portrayal of a professional spook attempting to negotiate a political minefield as well as hold her stressed-out marriage together.
Sadly, the often-impressive Penn hardly stretches himself here as the outraged spouse whose piece ‘What I didn’t find in Africa’ – denying that Saddam Hussein had actually been trying to obtain uranium – put him on a collision course with a US government determined to go to war with the dictator.
> Alien-invasion flick BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (12: Sony) sees Aaron Eckhart as a burnt-out Marine leading a misfit platoon against intergalactic aggressors in need of Earth’s water for fuel.
The gimmick is filming the hectic military operations from the soldiers’ point of view, creating newsreel-type immediacy. It’s a bit like War Of The Worlds meets The Hurt Locker.