Directed by John Carpenter, starring Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube and Jason Statham.

Cynics may say that John Carpenter has made the same film throughout his career, but with a CV which includes such cult classics as 'Assault on Precinct 13', 'The Thing' and 'Vampires', Carpenter knows what he's good at, his fans like it and go home happy.

The essential ingredients of most Carpenter outings are a group of disparate individuals - usually featuring a strong female and a difficult loner - trapped in a siege-like situation; 'Ghosts of Mars' fits the template perfectly. As the no-nonsense hero, Natasha Henstridge plays Ballard, a Mars-based cop sent with some colleagues to retrieve intergalactic badass Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) from a mining town and return him for trial. Trouble is, when they get to the pickup point they find the outpost virtually deserted with just a banged up Desolation and a couple of stragglers to greet them.

It seems the miners have stuck their shovels in all the wrong places and disturbed Martian spirits who have promptly taken over most of the townsfolk and turned them into weapon-wielding psychos with decapitation as their specialist subject. Situational ethics come into play and soon a handcuffs-free Desolation is fighting it out alongside the law in a makeshift bunker. But with the spirits growing in strength, the greatest enemy may come from within...

It has its share of comic book charm but 'Ghosts...' represents a major missed opportunity for Carpenter after returning to such winning ways with the James Woods' fronted 'Vampires' in 1999. Sure it's got elements of all his best work from the gung-ho convict through to the beat-the-clock drama and driving score, but with a running time of only 93 minutes it needs an extra half an hour to do justice to the backstory and subplots.

Characters come and go (in particular Pam Grier whose appearance in the film suggests she was double parked outside the studio) and intelligent ideas like Mars being a matriarchy and Henstridge having a drug habit are never developed. All somehow forgivable if the action scenes had you sideways in the seat, but with bad guys straight from central casting and some decidedly average shootouts this is more Mars lacks than Mars attacks and an outing for Carpenter die-hards only.

Harry Guerin