Ralph Fiennes's directorial debut, a muscular and intelligently rendered Coriolanus, launches him into the top echelon of Shakespeare adaptors.

It's been said of the play that "it hits you like a fist"; likewise, it's a film that brings a bitter echo of the Balkan conflict to its gripping depiction of war and politics.

One of Shakespeare's bloodiest and angriest plays (there's none of the Bard's usual background tomfoolery) may seem a risky choice. But Fiennes the actor has never sought the audience's love; and as a director, he seems keen to challenge and engage us. This is a long way from Kenneth Branagh's cute, heritage Shakespeare; if anything, it has more in common with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo And Juliet in making Shakespeare vibrantly contemporary.

Fiennes, who played Coriolanus on stage in 2000, again takes the title role as the Roman general who comes unstuck in his bid to enter politics. In fact, his journey is one of villain to hero to villain again – in the public eye, that is, since his character doesn't really change at all. In a way, that's his tragedy; Coriolanus just doesn't know how to play the game.

At the start of the play, plain Caius Martius is Rome's most senior general, overseeing a state of emergency during a food crisis. He doesn't even try to hide his scorn of the public's inability to cope, and becomes the most loathed man in the city.

With escalation of the war with a neighbouring state, Volsces, Caius Martius is sent to the front, where we see him in his element, exhorting his soldiers to "make you a sword of me" as he leads them into a fateful assault. Shaven-headed, covered in blood, his fury fired out in waves of spittle, Fiennes is even more terrifying here than as his serpentine Voldemort in the Harry Potter films.

Fiennes shoots these scenes (in Belgrade) as if he is reconstructing a Balkan battle – the Romans kitted with recognisably modern combat gear and weaponry, as they take on the guerrilla fighters in a viscerally orchestrated house-to-house confrontation. If this were judged as an action movie alone, it would certainly pass muster.

For the general, victory comes with a new title, Coriolanus, and pressure to stand for election as Rome's consul. He is supported by his influential mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and friendly senator Menenius (Brian Cox). But the hero still needs to be signed off by the public. And here Fiennes captures the dilemma of a man who can't abide the people he would serve, and for whom hiding his disdain would be an act of dishonour. At least he's honest. The hustings scene, in which the soldier is manipulated by politicians to admit his true feelings, and the consequent trial by media in which he is made an enemy of the state, speak to the current malaise in our politics, where image dominates substance.

With the final act, Fiennes again finds added nuance in his material. Coriolanus offers his services to the Volscian leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler), his antithesis, a veritable man of the people. This is already an intriguing relationship, with homoerotic overtones, between two strutting warriors. But Fiennes fuels his allusion to ethnic conflict by casting a Scot as his nemesis. Nice touch.

The cast speak the verse like a dream (I don't think I've ever seen a better performance by Redgrave), while a highly percussive score ensures that the tension doesn't let up for an instant.

The versatile Steven Soderbergh follows his disaster movie Contagion with an absolutely cracking action thriller. Haywire is pure, no-nonsense entertainment, exciting and stylish, and with the introduction of a new action heroine who is much more than a Hollywood A-lister buffing up.

Mixed martial arts star Gina Carano, left, makes her acting debut as Mallory Kane, a former marine working as a covert contractor for the government, who goes on the run when she is framed for murder. What Carano lacks in her delivery of dialogue (which is rather wooden), she more than makes up for in the compelling mixture of grace and venom that is her fighting style. Through gun battles, car chases and a number of one-on-one fights, this woman is quite magnificent – not only does a female stunt double seem unnecessary, but none of the guys stand a chance.

It's nice to see such a fine collection of leading men prepared to get their butts kicked, including Michael Fassbender, who features in the film's centrepiece encounter, and Ewan McGregor as Mallory's Machiavellian boss; Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas provide cunning and mischief, as the film flicks handsomely between Barcelona, Dublin, upstate New York and New Mexico.

As a director, Clint Eastwood tends to hit highs and lows, with very little in between. And J Edgar, his biopic about the infamous FBI director J Edgar Hoover, is a definite low. Hoover established the FBI as a highly effective, countrywide law enforcement agency, introducing forensics as a key tool for his agents. But he also used his agency to illegally gather material on political opponents, notably putting the frighteners on the Kennedys. Desperate to be a hero, most came to think of him as a villain.

With Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover from a young man up to his death in 1972, aged 77, this ought to have been an absorbing, prestige production. But hampered by a dreary and unfeasibly sentimental script and dull direction, the result is turgid.