The summer cinema season is in its fourth week, and television is looking better and better - despite the latter being in the throes of rerun doldrums.

We've tossed and turned with "Twister" and endured the impossible mission of "Mission: Impossible," and it's no coincidence that both films' titles reflect how the filmmakers feel about story development.Oh, sure, they try to compensate with splashy special effects and stylish technique, but the result is all superficial bluster.

And those are the two pictures I liked!

We've also seen "Flipper" flop, "Spy Hard" try too hard and "The Arrival" get ready to depart, while "Eddie" has pretty much fouled out in the first quarter.

In fact, the "pre-summer" big-screen openings, those preceding "Twister," which officially broke the ribbon and started the summer box-office race, met similar fates - "The Craft" sank, "The Pallbearer" croaked and "The Great White Hype" was KO'd.

So, it was with genuine optimism and no little sense of anticipation that I looked forward to two of the most hyped season-of-the-sun picks - "The Rock" and "The Phantom." Sadly, however, both proved to demonstrate how not to make an action film. And even more surprising, both seem to have been sabotaged by their respective directors.

Michael Bay pumped up "The Rock" too much, as if he was making a tribute to Steven Seagal by way of "NYPD Blue." And Simon Wincer didn't pump up "The Phantom" enough, leaving the comic-strip hero's feature debut listless and wimpy when it should have been as tight as Billy Zane's purple Spandex outfit.

Add to that the half-hearted "Dragonheart" and the emotionally chained "Heaven's Prisoners," and the summer is off to an inauspicious start at best.

Aside from being high-profile pictures released at the outset of Hollywood's biggest moneymaking quarter, the one thing most of these movies have in common is that the directors had final cut.

As a result, some of the films are too long ("The Rock" and "Heaven's Prisoners" clock at 2 hours, 15 minutes each), some just feel too long ("The Arrival," "The Phantom," "Dragonheart") and some would have had better luck going straight to video ("Eddie," "Spy Hard").

But mostly, each of these films is, to some degree, ridiculously self-indulgent. "Eddie" is another Whoopi Goldberg vanity vehicle without a script. "Dragonheart" and "The Phantom" are first-draft fantasies that needed more work. And "Flipper," "The Arrival" and "Spy Hard" are just ill-conceived retreads.

Then there's "The Rock," a silly, over-the-top, cartoony thriller without a brain in its head - a "Die Hard" wannabe whose screenwriters spent too much time devising a variety of gruesome ways to dispatch bad guys and not nearly enough on the film's story and character development.

Worse, the film wastes two of Hollywood's brightest, most appealing stars, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage - who also happen to be darn fine actors - by giving them absolutely nothing to work with.

Even at that, however, Connery and Cage might have been able to skate by on charm amid the constant array of fireballs, bullet sprays and shattering glass, were it not for the director's love affair with hand-held camera work that is in constant motion and a penchant for close-ups that would better serve a mouthwash ad.

Under the guidance of Clio award-winning director Michael Bay (who also gave us the similarly maddening Martin Lawrence-Will Smith comedy-thriller "Bad Boys"), they are instead repeatedly upstaged by the action, which has been shot with so many jittery close-ups that even a car chase on the streets of San Francisco is utterly incomprehensible.

If you really want to see what Bay was aiming for, rent "Bullitt," a nearly 30-year-old Steve McQueen thriller that features the definitive San Francisco car chase. Bay's version is an obvious homage, which fails miserably. (For that matter, check out "What's Up, Doc?" which has another well-staged chase sequence employing the hilly streets of San Francisco.)

In the end, "The Rock" should have been slick, mindless, action-fun - but is instead irritating, headache-inducing and, ultimately, dispiriting.

It's enough to make a film fan yearn for the good old days of the studio system, when producers and studio chiefs had an instinct for what worked on the screen and what didn't and weren't afraid to tell the directors what they thought.

Not that I'm literally suggesting filmmakers would do a better job with someone looking over their shoulders, barking orders about artistic decisions.

But I'm not sure it's much better to allow the filmmakers so much freedom that they don't have to listen to anyone.

Let's face it - who's going to say no to Steven Spielberg? Or, for that matter, who's going to say no to Jan De Bont when he's making a movie for Steven Spielberg, which is the case with "Twister."

Likewise, just because "Bad Boys" made money, apparently no one can tell Michael Bay that his follow-the-bouncing-camera style is annoying.

Oh well, maybe his mother will buy him a tripod for Christmas.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Nicolas Cage, on why he segues from big-budget movies to smaller pictures like his low-budget Oscar-winner, "Leaving Las Vegas":

"I didn't get paid anything for `Leaving Las Vegas' and I don't care. But I had to do `Trapped in Paradise' - as much as I couldn't stand that picture - because it paid me enough that I could do `Vegas' and `Kiss of Death.' "