Dir: Michael Moore. US. 2002. 120 mins

Those convinced that America is the home of the crazed and the land of the trigger happy will find ample support for their views in Bowling For Columbine. Michael Moore's emotive exploration of the constitutional right to bear arms is a wide-ranging, often shockingly funny documentary that balances a wicked wit with serious insight. Guaranteed to attract extensive media attention and substantial controversy, it has the potential to make a significant theatrical impact in the American market where Moore's earliest documentary Roger And Me (1989) was a breakthrough box-office hit for Warner Bros. Likely to receive a very sympathetic hearing in the rest of the world, it is probably unlikely to generate a similar degree of controversy. Theatrical and ancillary sales should still be strong, especially in territories where Moore's film and television work have established his reputation for fearless attacks on America's most scared institutions.

Inspired by the tragic events at Columbine High School in April 1999 when twelve students and one teacher were massacred, Moore sets out to understand why America has such a love affair with guns and the pathology of violence. He quickly establishes the ease with which any America can purchase and own a firearm by opening a bank account that comes with the incentive of a free weapon for each new customer. He reveals that he has been a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and once won an NRA Marksman Award. Establishing a personal connection to the subject matter allows him to speak with authority as he chronicles and challenges the arguments presented by those who reject any merit in the call for gun control.

Mixing archive gems, striking news items, shocking CCTV footage from inside Columbine and feisty interviews, Moore creates a thought-provoking documentary essay in which he plays his familiar role of shambling straight man to the kind of subjects who diminish in the viewer's eyes with every fatuous utterance they make. Ingratiating himself with good manners, courtesy and an avuncular manner, he secures some priceless comments from all his subjects, including James Nichols, one of the men implicated in the Oklahoma bombing. Nichols vigorously argues for an America's right to defend his home and family with armed force. Moore interjects with an innocent observation that Gandhi achieved the overthrow of British rule by peaceful protest. " I'm not familiar with him, " counters Nichols in a scene that provoked gales of audience laughter.

Methodically examining all the reasons put forward for the level of gun-related deaths in America, Moore easily tears their credibility to shreds. Other western countries watch violent movies, listen to the wicked evils of rock'n'roll, are afflicted by the break-up of the traditional family unit, high unemployment, social problems and more and yet in the year that he cites there were 255 gun-related deaths in France, 165 in Canada, 68 in Britain and well over 11,000 in America.

He continually returns to the question of what makes the situation in America so different from anywhere else in the world. He may not come up with an answer but it becomes the starting point for a far-reaching glimpse into the soul of a country defined by a permanent frontier mentality and an unhealthy degree of paranoia. In America's nearest neighbour Canada, Moore discovers places where they don't even lock their front doors and merrily wonders into people's homes. In America doors are always locked and intruders are met down the barrel of a gun.

Racism, poverty, class, the influence of the media and the financial advantages of keeping a population in a constant state of fear and loathing all come under Moore's scrutiny in a film that becomes a little strident at times and is maybe a shade overlong.

Mild-mannered and impish, Moore makes an unlikely Don Quixote but constantly justifies his recourse to questionable tactics and always wins your admiration not least in a sparring match with staunch NRA supporter Charlton Heston who soon departs an argument he cannot hope to win. Their close encounter is one of the highlights in a provocative, eye-opening film that sprinkles the polemic with enough humour and humanity to ensure that Moore is never just preaching to the converted.

Prod Co: Salter Street Films, Dog Eat Dog Films
Int'l sales: Alliance Atlantis
Prods: Michael Moore, Kathleen Glynn, Michael Donovan, Jim Czarnecki, Wolfram Tichy
Scr: Michael Moore
Cinematography: Brian Danitz, Michael McDonough
Ed: Kurt Engfehr
Mus: Jeff Gibbs