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Keanu the Untamed

Casting Reeves in an action film means he doesn't have to stand still and act

By Richard von Busack

Naturally, the explosions necessary to propel a movie are getting bigger and bigger, so the climactic blowup in Chain Reaction has to be even grander than the one in the previews. From one of those black helicopters the militias are worried about, Fred Ward, as an FBI agent, watches what appears to be most of Virginia going up in smoke. All Ward can manage is a mildly impressed "Whoa." It was the funniest thing in Chain Reaction. At a matinee crowd, no one laughed; they must have had the humor blasted out of them by this summer's movies.

In the lead is Keanu Reeves, which says it all, doesn't it? Director Andrew Davis does the trick used in Speed of throwing Reeves around so fast that you never see him stand still and act. A clever strategy. Reeves' untarnishable reputation as the worst actor in movies today is mitigated only by his uses as an action hero; if it takes firing him out of a cannon, figuratively speaking, to get him to make some impact, the makers of Chain Reaction were not above it. Davis jostles Reeves through his part as machinist Eddie Kasalivich, some sort of scientist without portfolio, working on the most important project of the century.

He's employed in a university lab on Chicago's South Side, tooling the instruments that will help the lab team achieve cold fusion--stabilizing a bubbling glass tank of water that will produce cold fusion, hydrogen gas or "sonoluminescence"; the details are vague. The team celebrates their success with champagne--indecently early, I thought--and our Keanu is escorting home a drunken British scientist, Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz, picked, no doubt, so that she wouldn't upstage Keanu with her talent). He returns for his motorcycle just as the whole laboratory goes up in a sizable explosion.

The blast which looked like megatonnage to me, is detonated by mysterious military-industrial-complex agents, unwilling to upset the current balance of power that would no doubt occur if such a technology were to be made available. (The problem of this plot is obvious--what about all the money to be made installing the new power grid?) Head grantwriter Morgan Freeman is--it's no secret to the viewer--moonlighting for a SPECTRE-like organization, C-Systems, buried in a huge underground laboratory from where they tweak the world's destiny. Unfortunately, all we get for a Blofeld is the highly unmenacing beardo Brian Cox. Presumably the Southern accent is to tip us off that Cox is supposed to be Ted Turner.

Kasalivich and Sinclair are framed for the blast and are left out in the cold, with C-Systems and the police pursuing them. Literal cold, since the movie is shot in the midst of a Midwestern winter. One of Davis' big strengths as an action director from Chicago is that he has interesting locations; Keanu hangs from the Michigan Avenue drawbridge, and he and Weisz are chased around the Argonne National Laboratory and Lake Geneva in the winter.

Davis, who directed the suspiciously similar The Fugitive, has an ingenuity isn't limited to the look of the film; the opening sequences sets up the story fluidly and with a minimum of dialogue. And Davis is a good stroker of liberal sympathies. (Kasalivich figures out a key bit of the puzzle merely because he was nice to a homeless person.) Still, the script groans with retreaded lines, sometimes scrambled even given their bad-movie simplicity. (Says Cox's Blofeld, menacing Freeman, "If someone's going down for this, it is not going to be I"; in another moment, the cops are urged to search "all parts of the compass.") If the climax is both preposterous and effective, it's to be expected; action movies, no matter how derivative and poorly cast, have strong, even explosive, beginnings and ends; it's just all of the stuff in between the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes that really ages you.

Chain Reaction stars Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman and Rachel Weisz. Directed by Andrew Davis, written by J.F. Lawton and Michael Bortman, from a story by Arne L. Schmidt, Rick Seaman and Josh Friedman. Produced by Davis and Schmidt.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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