On the Lame

On the Lameby Rob Nelson

Chain Reaction

area theaters

           IN CHAIN REACTION, Keanu Reeves portrays, as his character puts it, "a physicist with hypothermia accused of being a terrorist"--and forced to hide out in Wisconsin, yet. I suppose the idea of a surfer dude-type running around the ice-cold Dairy State is some Hollywood exec's vision of hell. Indeed, Chain Reaction's press kit reports that the crew "got more than they bargained for" during their Midwestern winter shoot: "The filmmakers expected a certain amount of harsh weather and snow... [but] with temperatures hovering at record lows, mechanical equipment, including beepers, cellular phones and cameras, began to freeze." And we thought making Waterworld was a bitch! Too bad this suspenseful tale of malfunctioning beepers wasn't part of the script, because the version credited to J.F. Lawton (Pretty Woman) and Michael Bortman (The Good Mother) could have done with some more drama.

           As it stands, Chain Reaction is a typical slab of '90s action cinema: short on logic, long on FX, unpredictable only by the standards of a grade school kid on summer break. As soon as Keanu has finished reciting his first line--"It's never too cold"--you can be sure he'll eat those words during some frigid scenario later on. And when his white-haired old boss (Nicholas Rudall), a University of Chicago scientist who has invented a cheap method of extracting hydrogen energy from water, is depicted as a kindly patriarch who gives bear-hugs to his staff, he might as well have "DEAD MEAT" stenciled on his forehead.

           Sure enough, he gets offed in an act of terrorist sabotage for which our young, handsome hero is framed. After Keanu hits the road on his motorcycle, narrowly escaping a huge lab explosion that also decimates about eight blocks of Chicago's South Side (shades of ID4), the film's next half-hour tries to keep us guessing whether his middle-aged mentor, played (well) by Morgan Freeman, is a good guy or a bad guy. All the way to the end, it's not clear whether the movie itself knows. As Freeman told Entertainment Weekly, "We sort of didn't have a script. We made it up as we went along."

           According to behind-the-scenes reportage, Chain Reaction was formerly a CIA thriller called Dead Drop, until action auteur Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) picked it as his next film, hired a team of writers to drastically rework the screenplay, and rushed the production to qualify for the summer blockbuster sweepstakes (the movie finished shooting just four months ago). Perhaps feeling stung by the dismal failure of his unwatchable pet project, the comedy Steal Big, Steal Little, Davis has fashioned his follow-up as a near-remake of his biggest hit: Wrongly accused Chicagoan, fleeing a murder charge, is pursued cross-country by a trench coat-clad FBI agent (here played by Fred Ward) who likes to bark orders while strutting toward the camera. True, The Fugitive's epic train wreck is here replaced by an epic chase scene set on a rising Michigan Avenue Bridge, although the sense of déjà vu extends to the subplot about the hero's betrayal by someone he trusts.

           As far as Davis's matching action-icon to plot, I'm probably one of the few who'd call Keanu a vast improvement over Harrison Ford; the wrong-man genre, with its ample opportunities for laconic emoting, seems better suited to the monosyllabic star of Speed. Although the press kit describes Keanu's character as "a complex figure who's an exciting contradiction of blue collar grit and intuitive grace"(!), the actor's stoned line-readings are as perversely charming as ever ("Taxi? We'd have better luck getting picked up by a UFO!"), and he's allowed far more range than in the upcoming Feeling Minnesota. Like Speed, Chain Reaction jokes about the failure of gas-powered engines, and suggests, as one character puts it, that "The world is speeding up too fast--we can barely hold on as it is." (Is there something about Keanu Reeves that inspires stories about the decline of western civilization?)

           That's about the extent of sociocultural subtext in Chain Reaction. And despite the script's pseudo-high-tech jargon (i.e. "ten mega-jewel lasers"), there isn't much to prevent the viewer's mind from wandering to non-scientific matters--like how dashing Keanu looks in his vast collection of winterwear, even though he's playing a desperate guy on the lam. British actress Rachel Weisz, as the obligatory female sidekick, looks pretty hot herself, although she sounds ridiculous pronouncing the Keanu character's name, Eddie, in various states of duress: "Ed-daaay! Ed-daaay?" Like Mission: Impossible's Emmanuelle Beart, Weisz is used to no greater effect than the supposed sex appeal of her accent. Is there some larger meaning to the trend of featuring foreign actresses in American action movies? An attempt to avoid giving female characters intelligent dialogue or a measure of control? A legacy of Pulp Fiction's annoyingly pliable Maria de Medeiros? Or maybe it's a way to save on actors' salaries, thus keeping more money available for those all-important special effects.

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