Dir: Chen Kaige. US. 2002. 99mins.

The real mystery about this unconvincing MGM film noir is what Chen Kaige is doing directing it. Perhaps the lukewarm reception afforded to his most recent Chinese outing, The Emperor And The Assassin, persuaded the director to try his luck with a thoroughly Western film. But in doing so, Chen has forfeited the intensely personal poetics of films like Farewell My Concubine or Life On A String, and become a jobbing Hollywood director struggling with a weak script. The fact that Killing Me Softly has so far been released only in Italy (where, after two weeks, it has taken $1.22m and is now playing on 185 screens ) and Japan (where it has taken $1.43m from 17 screens after four weeks) should set those alarm bells ringing. MGM has already pushed back the film's US debut more than once, and even the presence of the bankable Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham may not save it from a descent into DVD and pay-per-view limbo after a three or four-week run in English-speaking territories. Non-English language results so far have suggested that there is hope for it in territories with clever dubbers.

Set in London during an unaccountably snowy winter, the story is powered by those traditional thriller motors, passion and suspicion. Passion kicks in at a pedestrian crossing, when two hands touch by chance on the little "walk" button. The hands belong to Adam (Fiennes), a rugged, unshaven hunk in a leather jacket; and Alice (Graham), a birdlike, and, as it turns out, bird-brained, American website developer. She is in London for pretty much the same reason that Julia Roberts or Andie McDowell were in London: to keep US punters happy. Before long, it's more than hands that are touching, as the buttoned-up Alice - a "flatlander" from Indiana - discovers the joys of sex with Adam, who turns out to be a British mountaineering legend.

Swept away by Adam's ability to scale the heights in love as in life, Alice dumps her football-watching boyfriend and moves in, undeterred by a series of anonymous notes that start to arrive, warning her that there is a darker side to her all-night mountain hero. She goes ahead and ties the knot anyway, in a remote country church, and on their wedding night, Adam ties a few more knots, giving Alice the sort of high-risk, asphyxiating sexual experience that should carry a public health warning (could this have something to do with the film's US release difficulties').

The film chugs along in familiar 'paranoia or truth'' mode towards a hammy graveyard ending, leaving its audience behind somewhere along the way. It's all based on a novel by British husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (who go under the inventive pseudonym of Nicci French). Despite its very 1990s London feel, their story has, at least potentially, the kernel of a tight, Hitchcockian psycho-drama. But bad casting, limp dialogue and a pedestrian script turn Killing Me Softly into a classic How Not To case study. Worst of all is the lack of chemistry between Fiennes and Graham. Alice's decision to risk all for a man she hardly knows hinges on the audience's belief in her coup de foudre. But the characters remain Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes rather than Alice and Adam, and after a while, even the sex appears more contractual than convincing.

Graham appears to have a problem with London settings; she was equally clogged in her emotional range in the Ripper-flick From Hell, whereas on home territory, and in lighter roles - as in Ed Burns's Sidewalks Of New York - she can deliver. Both she and Fiennes are more suited to comedy: if Killing Me Softly sometimes tips over into absurdity (as when Graham is trying to do some serious acting while tied to the kitchen table), it is perhaps because the cast, left to their own devices by the hands-off director, find the comic potential of the hammy dialogue too much to resist. Natasha McElhone, in particular, goes all out for big-eyed, femme fatale corn. Even Ian Hart, who can generally be relied on to lift a role, seems uncertain how to play the jug-eared senior police officer that Alice runs to, and whose questioning provides the narrative frame of the film.

Although Chen's pedigree comes through in certain atmospherically lit, subjectively angled, frames, he is mostly absent from this lame and disappointing thriller. Even the costumes look tired, and the lugubrious soundtrack makes us long for the Roberta Flack song the title so frustratingly nods at. Copyright problems, we assume - or is it simply that the use of the song would have set up an ironic counterpoint that is beyond this film's range'

Prod co: The Montecito Picture Company
Int'l sales:
Myriad Pictures
Prod: Lynda Myles, Joe Medjuck, Michael Chinich
Exec prods: Ivan Reitman, Tom Pollock, Daniel Goldberg
Scr: Kara Lindstrom, based on the novel by Nicci French
Michael Coulter
Ed: Jon Gregory
Prod des: Gemma Jackson
Patrick Doyle
Main cast: Heather Graham, Joseph Fiennes, Natascha McElhone, Ulrich Thomsen, Ian Hart, Jason Hughes