Ryan Who? Have a Gander at Gosling

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER TOOKEY

Murder By Numbers (15) Verdict: Competent thriller with a rising star

Birthday Girl (15) Verdict: La Kidman can't save lacklustre comedy thriller

The Lawless Heart (15) Verdict: Aimless British drama

Beijing Bicycle (PG) Verdict: Aimless Chinese drama

RYAN Gosling isn't yet a household name, but if he sticks at this acting lark I'm willing to bet that he'll carve out a film career as distinguished as Al Pacino's.

He's got that rare, dangerous quality that makes you want to watch him rather than anyone else on screen, and a range and subtlety of expression that mean he can play several, conflicting emotions at once.

Gosling's debut, as a young Jewish fascist in The Believer, brought him unanimously favourable reviews from the few critics who saw it. Now, cast in his first mainstream Hollywood thriller, Murder by Numbers, he turns in the kind of performance that will have every Hollywood casting director dialling his agent.

It's the same kind of eye-catching turn - as a rich sociopath who kills for fun - that the young Edward Norton brought off in Primal Fear.

Indeed, Gosling distorts the balance of the movie, which is meant to be centred on the detective who's investigating his crime - good old reliable Sandra Bullock, who turns in a typically decent, thoughtful performance but is acted off the screen whenever Gosling appears.

That could be the young man's biggest problem. From now on, only a very confident leading actor will dare to share the lens with him.

Murder By Numbers is pretty much thriller-making by numbers.

It is like an episode of Colombo extended to feature length, with Bullock in the Peter Falk role of the indomitable detective who won't accept the obvious police interpretation of who murdered a young woman.

She senses intuitively that the real criminals are two high school students (Gosling and Michael Pitt) who are trying to prove their intellectual superiority and get away with 'the perfect crime'.

There's nothing new in this - it's another variation on the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case that inspired Hitchcock's Rope. But Barbet Schroeder directs with the same competence he brought to Single White Female.

OK, this is hackwork, but it's highly professional hackwork, a competent piece of storytelling that will keep you moderately gripped and entertained - and it's worth catching for the advent of someone who is going to be one of America's foremost screen actors.

_ANOTHER eye-catching but more established talent, Nicole Kidman, continues to extend her extraordinary range in Birthday Girl. She plays Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride booked by a St Albans bank clerk with a secret penchant for bondage (Ben Chaplin). THE most enjoyable moments are when Kidman is jabbering away in fluent Russian to the blank incomprehension of her leading man. Much though I admire her courage in taking on such a role in a small British picture and expertise in bringing it off, I really can't see this movie becoming a hit.

Jez and Tom Butterworth's film is fatally torn between being a black comedy heist thriller and a heartwarming romance.

It might have worked better had they gone all out for the former. It catches fire only when the leading lady's cousin (Matthieu Kassovitz) and dangerous-looking friend (Vincent Kassel) turn up announced for her birthday, invite themselves to stay, and lead the hero down the path to criminality and public disgrace.

Unfortunately, the Butterworth brothers seem to think the film works best as a romance.

But Ben Chaplin's character is too boring, sleazy, foolish, petulant and downright ineffectual to make us believe that Nadia could possibly find him attractive.

I doubt if you'll care much for him either. Ben Chaplin is a good, intelligent actor, but he doesn't quite have the charisma, energy or sheer lustiness to make him a star. …