THE BIG HIT - LES MISERABLES (1998) - HE GOT GAME
TWO GIRLS AND A GUY - DEEP IMPACT

THE BIG HIT

Melvin Smiley is a hit-man with a heart. All he wants is to do his job and be loved. He has a fiancee and a girlfriend - both beautiful. And, he is so good at what he does, his services are always in demand for top dollar. Unfortunately for Mel, everyone around him, his women, his friends, his business associates, all want a piece of the poor guy's action. Fiancee Pam, a Jewish American Princess, has given her parents $50,000 of Mel's hard earned cash. Girlfriend Chantel is fleecing him for mortgage, car payments and "expenses" so she can run off with her lover, Sergio. His friend and business partner, Cisco, shames the killer out of his bonuses. An ill-planned kidnapping of a Japanese industrialist's daughter, whose godfather, Paris, is Mel's employer, catapults the young assassin into turmoil as he tries to sort out his life in "The Big Hit."

Robin ROBIN:
Marking his North American debut with "The Big Hit," Hong Kong New Wave pioneer Che-Kirk Wong hits the ground with both feet running in this slick, fast-paced, in your face, action-packed comedy thriller that in stylish in its visuals and strikingly funny in its dialogue. Wong shows an assured hand in directing his high energy young cast, with the best performances coming from Mark Wahlberg as the hapless sap, Melvin, and Lou Diamond Phillips as his conniving, underhanded friend Cisco.

Wahlberg, who gave a terrific performance as porn star Dirk Diggler in last year's independent hit "Boogie Nights," takes a different turn with Melvin Smiley. Where hit-men are always shown as solitary figures, loners who have no ties and are passionate about their profession, Mel is a working class kind of guy, putting in his hours on the clock and, after checking out for the day, going home to the loving arms of his fiancee or his girlfriend. While he thinks all is well and his dual love life under control, he is being bilked by both. His friend Cisco is no better, always taking the credit for Mel's hits and cheating him from mob boss, Paris', bonus incentive plan.

Lou Diamond Phillips, as Cisco, plays a very different character from his powerful dramatic performance in "Courage Under Fire." He is a perfect foil to Mel and is the antithesis of all the good exhibited by the sensitive Melvin. Phillips is showing diversity of talent, here, as he crosses over into action-comedy. His comic delivery, as he cons Mel from his hard earned money or talks his way out of the kidnapping he masterminded, is dead-on. He is developing into a first-rate character actor.

The rest of the cast looks good but doesn't have a great deal to do except to populate the background. Newcomer China Chow makes a small splash as the cocky, irreverent kidnap victim who falls for Mel (and vice versa). Bokeem Woodbine, as Mel's friend/colleague Crunch, has a funny, one-gag bit as a twenty-something guy who discovers the wonders of masturbation - the gag carries through the film without being overdone. Danny Smith, in a funny turn as the pimply-faced video clerk, haunts Mel throughout the film over an overdue video of "King Kong Lives."

The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and meld the necessary humor into the action nicely. The opening hit, in particular, goes far in establishing the expertise of Melvin and his ability to act as a one-man army, as Wahlberg flies through the air, dodging bullets and taking out bad guys left and right. The quality of these set pieces pays homage to those of the great John Woo (who also executive produced). Che-Kirk Wong is not at Woo's level, yet, but is a comer and one to watch.

The fast-paced action, witty dialogue, effective directing and writing, and a solid cast make "The Big Hit" a fun go to the theater. I give it a B.

Laura LAURA:
"The Big Hit" may not be the first comedy about hit men, but it must be the most exhuberant. Hong Kong director Che-Kirk Wong (making his American debut), stars Donnie Wahlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips and a bevy of top notch stuntmen go all out to give the audience a hysterical rollercoaster ride.

Melvin Smiley (Wahlberg) is a killing tour de force, but unlike John Cusack in last year's "Grosse Point Blank," he's also not that bright and a pushover besides - he can't stand the notion that someone might not like him. This character quirk causes him to give up bonuses to his undeserving colleague Cisco (Phillips), keep his equally undeserving girlfriend (Lela Rochon) in a style flashier than his own, as well as bankroll his fiance's (Christina Applegate) father's failing business. He's also got a psychotic videostore clerk on his case to return an overdue tape which he can't find. When Cisco decides to pull a side job, Mel's in because he really needs the cash. Unfortunately Cisco's plan involves kidnapping the daughter of a Japanese businessman who turns out to be their boss' goddaughter Keiko (China Chow, in her film debut). Cisco's called in to find the kidnapper and quickly fingers Mel, who's he's left holding the girl, even though Mel's currently entertaining his future in-laws (Elliott Gould and Lanie Kazan). One mishap leads to another, while Mel and Keiko (who's smarter than any of them) fall for each other amidst the madness.

This was a good and different move for Wahlberg after "Boogie Nights." He's note perfect as the sweet Mel who also happens to be an unstoppable killing machine. Lou Diamond Phillips delivers a real funny turn as the less than brilliant, hair-trigger Cisco, delivering his lines with machine-gun fire rapidity. Bokeem Woodbine is Crunch, Mel's friend who proves there is honor among thieves. Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Robin Dunne round out the hit squad as Vince and Gump, the Stutterer.

There's scene after scene to delight in "The Big Hit," which opens as Mel tries to deal with a butchered body in his jacuzzi. The one major hit where we see the whole gang in operation is an amazingly choreographed shoot out John Woo (who executive produced) would be proud to call his own. Wahlberg flies through the air, rolls down a staircase with his neck and ankles straddling the bannisters and fires off rounds while spinning around on his stomach. The climactic ending, where Mel is pitted against his boss's entire forces until only Cisco remains begins with guns cocked underneath Mel's dinner table and escalates over and over in a trail of mass destruction.

The dialogue is sharp and funny and the pacing's mostly great - the film does slow down a bit in its midsection as Mel deals with his Jewish American Princess fiance and her parents, and then as his relationship with Keiko is established, but it picks up again as it speeds its way toward the finish line.

"The Big Hit" deserves to be one.

B


LES MISERABLES (1998)

Oscar winning Danish director Bille August brings a lavish English language adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic "Les Miserables," starring Liam Neesan (Oscar nominee, "Schindler's List) as the heroic everyman Jean Valjean and Oscar winning Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") as his arch enemy, Inspector Javert. Released from a prison labor camp after nineteen years for the petty theft of a loaf of bread, Valjean's life takes a new course when a kindly country priest forgives him for stealing silverware. Valjean becomes the beloved mayor of Vigau and a wealthy factory owner, but is put on his guard when Javert, who was a guard while he was in prison, is appointed Chief of Police in Vigau. Uma Thurman is Fantine, the unwed mother who's fired from Valjean's factory only to be saved by him before her death. Years later in Paris, after Valjean's forced to flee after being recognized by Javert, he's raising Fantine's daughter Cosette (Claire Danes) who's fallen in love with Marius, a revolutionary being tailed by Javert.

Laura LAURA:
Another adaptation of "Les Miserables" at first seemed pointless to me, especially after the terrific modern-day adaptation by Claude Lelouch in 1995, starring Jean Paul Belmondo. However, Bille August has assembled a fine cast working from a crisply adapted screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, all stunningly photographed by Jorgen Persson on location in Prague, which stands in nicely for late nineteenth century Paris.

After briefly giving us a glimpse of the dehumanizing conditions Valjean endured for almost two decades, the filmmakers cut to the chase, placing Valjean begging for food and shelter from a country bishop after his release. The bishop, nicely characterized by veteran character actor Peter Vaughn, teaches Valjean the lesson of forgiveness. He turns the man's life around by making a gift of the silverware Valjean's stolen in front of the startled police who've returned the ungrateful thief back to his host.

Valjean prospers in Vigau and when we see him following the bishop's example, his acts of kindness pay him back nicely further down the road. When he forced to flee from Javert he stops to pick up the young Cosette (Mimi Newman) and the scene with the evil and greedy Thenardiers, who've been 'caring' for her for a price, was enough to make my skin crawl with the scene's suggestion of horrific child abuse and overt display of greed.

Liam Neeson has his best role in years here and does well by it. Is he making a speciality of playing magnanimous factory owners (think Oskar Schindler)? The greatest turn, though, is given by Geoffrey Rush as the relentless Inspector Javert. The man's actions, his scrupulously black and white attendance to the law, are gradually belied by his mind, which Rush projects through his troubled eyes. This is a great performance and one which I hope the Academy remembers when they're rounding up their Best Supporting Actor nominees next year. Uma Thurman has never been better, or more convinicing, as the consumptive Fantine. Unfortunately, the usually fine Claire Danes struggles to find the right note to play as Cosette - and chooses teen angst. Her performance somehow seems too modern for her surroundings. British newcomer Hans Matheson is an appealing Marius, shabbily sexy with just the right amount of high mindedness.

"Les Miserables" is a handsome production (production designer Anna Asp is an Oscar winner for "Fanny and Alexander") and a very welcome and worthwhile presentation of a classic.

B+

Robin ROBIN:
From what I have been able to dig up in our film reference library, this latest version of the epic Victor Hugo novel, "Les Miserables," is the ninth interpretation of the book to be brought to the screen, both large and small, since the advent of talking pictures. Academy Award-winning director Bille August ("Pele the Conqueror") conducts his key cast - Liam Neeson ("Michael Collins") as the stalwart Jean Valjean, Jeffrey Rush ("Shine") as the relentless Inspector Javert, Uma Thurman ("Gattica") as the tragic figure Fantine, and Claire Danes ("Little Women") as Cosette, Fantine's orphaned daughter - in a straightforward telling of the original work.

The screenplay by Rafael Yglesias pares down the original 1000+ page novel to its main elements, converting the huge book to the salient interludes that take place from Jean Valjean's release from prison 19 years after being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to his final permanent freedom from pursuit by Javert. The result of this paring is to make the story a series of episodes in the life of Valjean: meeting the old bishop (Peter Vaughan) who changes Jean's life forever with kindness; becoming mayor of Vigau and converting the poor town into a thriving democratic enterprise; the arrival of Inspector Javert in Vigau and his subsequent inquiries into Valjean's past; his escape from the clutches of Javert; hiding out for 8 years, with Cosette, in a convent; Valjean's valiant effort to protect Cosette and save her new love; Valjean and Javert's final, fateful confrontation. These interludes have the feel of a series of set pieces tied together by the timeworn story of injustice overcome. This is, I think, due to cutting extended sequences, by Yglesias, from the book to accommodate the film's conservative run time of 131 minutes (compared to the 265-minute 1934 French version, or the 177-minute 1995 (also French) rendition starring Jean Paul Belmondo as Jean Valjean). Yglesias cuts deeply into the original work, exorcising large chunks of lengthy plot development, relying on audience knowledge of the story to keep the screenplay manageable.

Direction by Danish auteur Bille August is solidly accomplished with equally solid performances elicited by all the principles.

Liam Neeson, as Jean Valjean, is stoic in his depiction beleaguered man, emoting the constant angst of the man as he tries to make an unobtrusive life for himself in a world that wants to take away all he has earned. A good, not great, performance by Neeson.

Jeffrey Rush, following up his Oscar winning performance in "Shine," is impressively focussed as the dogged Javert. He's a man who sees the law as the be all and end all of his life, with all questions of innocence viewed as black and white, right and wrong. His relentless, years long pursuit of Valjean is accompanied by a sullen intensity by Rush that makes Javert's obsession a palpable thing. His is the most notable performance in the film and should be remembered come year's end.

Uma Thurman, as Fantine, has the toughest role in the film. Her character is at the bottom of the society barrel. She is the unwed mother of an illegitimate child, Cosette, losing her job and livelihood because of an unknowing action by Valjean. Most of Thurman's on-screen time involves her lingering death, a hard part to give complexity and depth, and she acquits herself well.

Claire Danes contributes little to the film as the grown-up Cosette. She is little more than an object of concern for Valjean and has little on-screen spark.

Technically, all aspects of the film are solid. Photography by longtime August collaborator, Jorge Persson, is crisply done, using stark lighting that is in keeping with the somberness of Valjean and his plight. Costume is suited to the period of the story, particularly in the funeral confrontation scene at the film's climax when the citizens of Paris revolt against the oppression of the monarchy.

"Les Miserables" is a well-crafted rendition of Hugo's work. I enjoyed the 1995 Belmondo version more (it transports the original story to the 20th Century, using the backdrop of World War II as its schematic device), mainly due to Belmondo and the epic scope of the earlier film. The new version is a traditional telling of the story, and there is nothing wrong with tradition. I give it a B.


HE GOT GAME

Spike Lee's twelfth feature film stars Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, a convict serving 15 to life for killing his wife during a family argument. Jake is offered a deal from the governor, via the sleazy warden (Ned Beatty), to commute his sentence if he can get his son, Jesus (Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks), to accept a sports scholarship to Big State University, the alma mater of the state's chief exec. On his release, Jake finds that he is just one of many around his son who want to influence his decision and get themselves a piece of the Jesus' lucrative career pie. Jesus (and Jake) has just one week to make the most important decision if his life in "He Got Game."

Robin ROBIN:
Lee begins the film from Jake's (Washington) point of view as the man gets a chance to free himself from a prison of his own making. His inner violence, when a young father and husband, shatters the semblance of normalcy of life for Jake and his family. A simple, careless and violent act by Jake results in his wife Martha's (Lonette McKee, "Jungle Fever") accidental death and ends with his incarceration in Attica. The offer of clemency, in the beginning of "He Got Game," appears to be the direction of the story. Then Lee changes direction radically as he brings Jesus into the picture and uses Jake as a foil for the young athlete. Washington steps aside, giving center stage to Allen, acting as the younger man's muse. Nice perf by Denzel.

When Jesus Shuttlesworth enters the scene, the focus of "He Got Game" centers on the young high school superstar as he faces what everyone - coaches, friends, agents and family - calls "the biggest decision you will make in your life." NBA star Allen gives a remarkable debut performance by a non-actor. Jesus is pursued by every major college recruiter, sports agent and the NBA and has to weigh all the offers to get what's best for him and, especially, his little sister, Mary (Zelda Harris). Jesus has to cope with temptation in many forms - money, fast cars and faster women - as he wrestles with the demons that haunt college and pro basketball.

A remarkable supporting cast consisting of many Spike Lee regulars brings depth to the background stories. Hill Harper ("Get On The Bus"), as Jesus' diminutive cousin and fellow player Booger, gives a sentimental performance as he bonds with his long-absent uncle. Roger Guenveur Smith ("Malcolm X," "Eve's Bayou") is riveting as Jesus' soothsayer who describes the exact temptations facing Jesus before they happen. Lee also peppers the movie with a gang of cameos that's a who's who of basketball from Celtics coach Rick Pitino to playing greats Bill Walton, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. B-ball fans will have some fun counting all the sport personalities who show their faces.

The music selection for "He Got Game" is an odd mix of modern classical and rap. A number of excerpts from American composer Aaron Copeland's works - "John Henry," "Appalachian Spring," "Lincoln?s Portrait," "Fanfare for the Common Man," "Billy the Kid" and many more - are use to varying effect. Sometimes, the powerful orchestrations of Copeland are used to enhance the energy of the basketball action to good result. Other times, during sensitive scenes between Jesus and Jake, or Jake and his little sister, the quiet syrupiness of "Our Town" feels totally out of place to the scene as the sentimental music conflicts with the anguish of the characters. Copeland is one of my favorite composers, but I would have thought twice about using some of his work in "He Got Game."

Conversely, the rap songs chosen work terrifically where used. The title song, by Chuck D, LuQuantum Leap and Stephen Stills, utilized through the film, contains a notable sample from the 60?s song by Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth." This song, and others, are nicely integrated into the fabric of the movie.

Photography by Malik Hassan Sayeed has a gritty, earthy quality that complements the Coney Island locales, from the amusement park to the mean streets. Costume and set design are subtle, but effective.

"He Got Game" uses basketball as its overall fabric, but Lee paints intimate characters who are about more than the game. Themes of integrity, honesty, loyalty and familial love are woven through the film resulting in a complex, thought-provoking human drama.

I strongly recommend "He Got Game" and give it a B+.

Laura LAURA:
Spike Lee is well known as the East Coast version of Jack Nicholson - he's a celebrity basketball fanatic (Spike's a Knicks fan and reknowned hater of the Boston Celtics). With "He Got Game," though, Spike's main focus isn't really basketball. In fact, "He Got Game" is one of Lee's most complex, and best, films, tackling such issues as father and son relationships, the price of fame, the corruption at the heart of sports recruiting, the sheer beauty of athletics, and even religion.

I admire Lee for always having imaginative opening credit sequences and here he starts with a corn fed view of Americana where a potential future Larry Bird shoots hoop in the expansive MidWest. Gradually Lee shifts focus to grittier urban hoopsters, like his young protagonist, Jesus Shuttlesworth played by Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks. (I have to note that this sequence also featured the weirdest credit wipe I've ever seen, from 'Music by Aaron Copeland' to 'Songs by Public Enemy'! Using Copeland was a nice idea that works intermittently. Public Enemy just seem to suit Lee.)

Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, imprisonned for the murder of his wife, Jesus' mother. He can get leniency from the governor, a huge basketball fan, by convincing his estranged son, the nation's number one high school player, to attend the governor's alma mater, Big State. Unfortunately for him, he'll be about the thousandth person to attempt to sway Jesus' decision - Jesus is so fed up being asked about it that his cousin Booger (Hill Harper) walks beside him carrying a sign which reads 'Where you going? He doesn't know yet.'

Washington has more to work with here than he's had in a while, underplaying the complex character of Jake, giving his son room to breath and hopefully, come to him. The relationship is shown in flashbacks which demonstrate that Jesus has plenty of reason to hate his father. It's hard to believe that Ray Allen has never acted before as he gets everything right in his interpretation of Jesus (Jake's revelation of the origin of that name is an inspired bit of storytelling). Zelda Harris is fine as Jesus' little sister who he zealously cares for and Rosario Dawson ("Kids") has the right mix of sexiness and self interest as his duplicitous girlfriend. The film's supporting cast is a virtual reunion of the "Get On the Bus" cast, which this film oddly reminded me of, up to Lee's repeat use of "Roll Call."

The film's somewhat languid storytelling pace is punched up by frequent flashes of montage - television spots on Jesus featuring cameos by the likes of Michael Jordan and Celtics coach Rick Pitino, a lecture from local hotshot Big Time Willie (Roger Guenveur Smith) on the downfalls of drugs, booze and women with depictions of all, a wild romp for Jesus with two naked blondes attempting to seduce him into a University's basketball program. Everything works with the possible exception of Jake's sidestory with prostitute Dakota (Milla Jovovich), too much of which was all too obviously left on the cutting room floor.

The film's ending is satisfying without ever having been obvious, using the basketball as a symbolic link between father and son.

B+


TWO GIRLS AND A GUY

What happens when a good looking and talented New Yorker returns from an LA audition to discover that his two girl friends, who he's successfully kept unaware of each other for almost a year, both decided to surprise him at his apartment on his return, discover his duplicity, and break into his apartment to confront him? That's the conundrum faced by Blake (Robert Downey Jr.) with Carla (Heather Graham) and Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner) in writer-director James Toback's "Two Girls and a Guy," which the director wrote for Downey Jr. as therapy for his much publicized addiction problems.

Laura LAURA:
"Two Girls and a Guy" attempts to philosophize over the meaning of love and monogamy and perhaps overreaches itself, but does provoke some interesting thoughts and features a tour de force, maybe even soul searching, performance from Robert Downey Jr.

Hollywood outsider James Toback has had a wildly uneven film career, from the highly regarded "Fingers" and Oscar nominated screenplay for "Bugsy" to the much maligned "Exposed" and lukewarm "The Pickup Artist." Toback wrote this script in four days and shot the film on one location in eleven days and it shows. Toback keeps his film from seeming entirely stagebound by giving Blake a modern, multi-leveled apartment which allows him to move the action into totally different spaces, but leaves the audience wondering how a struggling performer could pay for such a place. Some post production dialogue looping is so amateur that the characters lips aren't even moving when they're supposed to be speaking.

Downey Jr. does get a chance to display talents I didn't even know he had - he enters his apartment singing Vivaldi's "Cum Sancto Spiritu" in multiple registers with quite an impressive voice, which he also displays singing his 'signature' song, "You Don't Know Me." His Blake goes into overdrive furiously backpedalling to the two women he's professed total love for. His argument, that he fell in love for the first time with both of them at the same time and was confused, is almost believable. However, the script shows a decided slant for Carla over Lou as the favorred woman of his desires.

Heather Graham's Carla is the more sophisticated and womanly of the two. Natasha Gregson Wagner's (Natalie Wood's daughter) Lou is more childlike and streetwise rather than worldly. Both women sneer at Blake's concern for a sick mother (Blake has a fondness for his cellular phone), as they've compared notes and think he's used Mom as a cover with each of them, while Blake apparently can't understand why they snicker at his escalating phone calls to both his mother and her doctor.

The two women share several belts of tequila (with Lou being the decided instigator - she's trying to get Carla drunk) which inspires Carla to drag Blake into his bedroom to seduce and abandon him. This is the scene Toback was forced to edit to avoid the NC-17 and it does get pretty wild when Carla doesn't get what she bargained for while Lou listens outside the door. This is the real pivot point that drives the real confrontation and we discover that "You Don't Know Me" applies equally to all three characters, neatly driving home the potentially self-delusional nature of romantic love.

The film is most worthwhile to enjoy Robert Downey Jr. in his bravest performance. In close-up, Blake addresses himself in a mirror, daring himself to wise up, stop hurting the people he loves and take responsibility for his actions - script or improvization?

The film ends on a hopeful note that unfortunately relies on a rather obvious bit of plotting and is somewhat confusing with regards to its timeline and abruptness.

B-

Robin ROBIN:
I didn't think, even for me, that a 90's sexual fantasy of a film titled "Two Girls and a Guy" with two very attractive young actresses and the talents of Robert Downey, Jr., could be dull, but it is. Writer-director James Tobak ("The Pick-up Artist") hides behind the untamed acting ability of Downey, using that actor to breath life into a false-feeling screenplay that is more about rambling speeches, mostly by Downey, than it is about real people. There is little realistic feel to the characters, as drawn by Tobak.

The performance given by Downey is a tour de force for the self-ravaged young actor. He shows his versatility in "Two Girls and a Guy" that ranges from a surprising rendition of Vivaldi's "Cum Sancto Spiritu" (both baritone and soprano parts) to a close-up soliloquy on his failures (that rings very true for Downey's real life, too) to a hammy reading from "Macbeth" (sounding like Richard Burton on a bad day). His ability to deliver the stream-of-consciousness speeches at a manic pace, convincingly, and a remarkably good singing voice, make Downey's a captivating presence on the screen.

Co-stars, Heather Graham ("Boogie Nights," "Lost In Space") and Natasha Gregson Wagner ("Lost Highway"), fare less well with the material provided. Graham has the least to say and gets to be little more than attractive window dressing. Wagner gets the meatier of the two female roles but is hampered by the fake dialogue provided by Tobak. I though, at first, that she was a bad actor, but, watching the film, Wagner is OK, it's just the writing that sucks.

Technically, "Two Girls and a Guy" is all over the place. Post dubbing of the audio is ham-handed and obvious, while the photography, by Barry Markowitz ("Sling Blade") jumps from shaky and out of focus to some strikingly done close-up shots of the attractive cast.

Set design is relegated to the very nicely furnished loft apartment that is far more expansive and opulent than a struggling young actor should be able to afford. Nice looking, though.

An exciting performance by Robert Downey, Jr. makes "Two Girls and a Guy" a tolerable venture, but not one I would recommend to any but the hard-core Downey fan. The controversial sex scene that garnered so much NC-17 interest prior to release has been pared down to get the coveted R rating. I don't know what was cut from the original scene, but what we get is not erotic. I give it a C-.


DEEP IMPACT

Steven Spielberg and company's DreamWorks Pictures have once again backed goldengirl director Mimi Leder ("The Peacemaker") with the first of this summer's blockbuster comet-heading-for-earth films, "Deep Impact," starring Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States and Tea Leoni as CNN anchorwoman Jenny Lerner, who, with the rest of mankind, face annihilation from the celestial body hurtling on a collision course with Earth.

Robin ROBIN:
Like last year's dueling volcano flicks (Dante's Peak" and "Volcano"), the race is on to see which studio could hit the streets with the ultimate disaster of a comet crashing into the earth. DreamWorks wins the race, getting "Deep Impact" into the theaters just before the summer blockbuster fest starts, with hopes of getting the pre-season box-office bucks. It's just as well the battle is won, because I think DreamWorks is going to lose the war to the next killer comet film "Armageddon," coming out in a few weeks.

The main problem with "Deep Impact" is its lack of real human drama. The three central characters, with certain doom approaching, give the semblance of fear/horror but never leave the two dimensions in which they are drawn. Morgan Freeman (whom I still consider one of America's pre-eminent actors) lends his typical dignity to his role as the President of the United States, but is relegated to a performance made up of a series of news conferences where he has to break various bad news to the public. He is never given the chance to be a person. Instead, he is simply an icon.

Tea Leoni, who has never impressed me with her acting ability, keeps up her mediocre acting efforts here. Her line delivery is in a monotone that lacks any excitement or verve, even as she is reporting the end of the world! Her performance, being central to the story and film, needs a spark that Leoni fails to deliver.

Elijah Wood, an impressive kid actor, is not making the splash I expected as he enters puberty. He has not exhibited his earlier acting talents in his recent films, "Flipper" and "The Ice Storm," and continues to disappoint in "Deep Impact."

Special F/X are very well done throughout the film, from the launching of The Messiah to save the world to the exciting scenes of its crew trying to blow up the oncoming comet. There is nothing spectacular, though.

"Deep Impact" is a thoughtful film that tries to embrace the human aspect of coping with the pending disaster, but does so in an unexciting and shallow way. At the point where I thought the film was nearly over, I was woe to find that it had barely passed the halfway mark. This is not a good sign, especially for a two hour disaster flick.

I give it a C.

Laura LAURA:
Director Mimi Leader ("The Peacemaker) has stated that what makes "Deep Impact" different from the bigger (bigger comet, bigger budget) "Armageddon" following in July is that this one's about the announcement itself and how humanity reacts to impending doom. However, when the film's characterizations rarely go below skin deep, what we get is a generic, paint by the number, disaster flick with so-so special effects at the climatic payoff.

The film's central character is Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni of TV's "The Naked Truth"), an ambitious MSNBC news reporter who believes she's onto a scandalous White House story. Retiring Secretary of the Treasury Rittenhaus (James Cromwell, "Babe") has declared his wife's illness as the reason for stepping down, but Jenny believes it really has to do with his affair with a woman named Ellie. She attempts to interview him while he's preparing for a long trip on a yacht (hint, hint) and suddenly the FBI have rounded her up and presented her to the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman), who refers to Ellie as E.L.E. and asks her to hold off on her story for 48 hours for the sake of national security while promising her first question at his press conference. Lerner finally realizes she's got her facts mixed up, and with a minute spent searching the Web, discovers that E.L.E stands for Extinction Level Event. Jenny's also dealing with her own personal crisis, as her father (Maximillian Schell) has married a younger woman leaving her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) bereft. This is supposed to provide her with character background, but Leoni's performance ranges from blandly OK to laughable (unless her TV reporter is supposed to be inept), although she does have one nice moment with her Dad at the end of the film.

There are two other groups of people representing humankind. Elijah Wood is the young teen who first identifies the unknown object which turns out to be the 6 mile wide comet that will bear his and his astronomer's club advisor's name. Robert Duvall is Spurgeon Tanner, the last man who walked on the moon and the resented veteran among a group of hot shot astronauts (Jon Favreau of "Swingers" and Blair Underwood of TV's "L.A. Law" are among them) who'll board the Messiah spacestation in an attempt to nuke the comet in space.

Duvall gives his all as usual as the wise old coot who pilots the Messiah and he plays nicely off the young female copilot who comes to respect him. The rest of the crew are completely generic. Morgan Freeman is believable as a U.S. President facing an apocalypse. Both Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell manage to paint characters with little screen time and the unenviable position of having to act against Leoni. That's it on the acting front.

The story is simple. Try one thing to stop the comet and fail. Panic mounts. Put the country under marshal law and devise a lottery system where one million people will be chosen to live in a high tech cave in Missouri to reestablish the planet (this plays like a bigger blown version of the bomb shelter Twilight Zone episode). Try a second thing to stop the comet and fail again. Time for heroics in each of the three character camps.

The story misses details that would have given it dramatic punch. Riotting and chaos are only presented in a few second clip as Jenny reads at the news desk. There's no mention of religion, except for the ludicrous name of the spacestation. This film is even worse than "Independence Day" in making the U.S. the focal point of a worldwide calamity (there's a Russian on Messiah's crew and the President briefly alludes to other world leaders).

Special effects aren't special enough. There's one scene where the astronauts race the sunrise while planting the nuclear devices on the comet where an effective use of sound wholly captures the terror and isolation the men are experiencing. However, the great tidal waves we're given at the film's climax are undercut by the thoroughly silly details sprinkled thoughout - an old man reading a paper on a park bench in New York City is caught unawares by a 1,000 foot tidal wave?

C


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