The American solution: incinerate the town with a single nuclear bomb.
For thirty minutes, "Outbreak" plays to a genuine 90s vulnerability: our collective fear of an untreatable virus. Will our drug-saturated world become prey to a drug-resistant plague? The movie is undeniably topical, coinciding as it does with headlines announcing the spread of TB through airplane ventilation systems.
It opens in an African mercenary camp, where the populace is infected by a deadly blood-borne virus that attacks the immune system and kills its victims within two to three days. The American solution: incinerate the town with a single nuclear bomb.
We watch a small monkey skitter into the jungle accompanied by intense, melodramatic music, which tells us the virus still lives in this monkey's gut. The few compelling minutes of "Outbreak" trace the chain of contamination, until, decades later, a monkey carries the virus to a U.S. pet store, where it mutates and becomes airborne. Fever, lesions and liquefying organs kill at a rate of 100%.
Enter Sam (Dustin Hoffman) and Robby (Rene Russo), a pair of disease-control experts involved in a personal war over custody of their dogs in an otherwise friendly divorce. When the plague hits, Generals Ford (Morgan Freeman) and McClintock (Donald Sutherland) try to dump Sam, the maverick germ tracker. The generals, it seems, have something to hide.
You have gathered by now that the movie that might have wormed into your deepest fears has suddenly become a high-voltage action flick. The initial tension has drained out through a sieve of silliness. You can relax and enjoy Sam and his friends, Casey (Kevin Spacey) and Major Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.), as they battle the virus and the military brass.
Can Sam find the host monkey in time to save his beloved? Can we hold up for one more second under the alarmist musical score that drives the action?
Dustin Hoffman, playing Sam without winking, has a fine match in Rene Russo, but these two classy actors seem trapped in the Stallone-style theatrics. Cuba Gooding Jr. is very appealing as the resourceful West Point straight arrow, who uses every trick he ever dreamed of to save the day. The fine Morgan Freeman, miscast as a weak villain, is teamed with Donald Sutherland, who uses his patented eye-rolling lunacy to tell us he's a bad guy.
A few uncomfortable splinters stick under the skin: "You have to love its simplicity," Sam says of the virus, "It's one billionth our size and it's beating us." And the military decision to contain the germ by isolating and then incinerating the town's population has the ugly ring of the inevitable. Quarantine and incinerate are words that smolder in the subconscious of an overpopulated planet.
You'll spend only a few minutes wishing you weren't breathing the same air as your neighbor; when they get this theme right, you'll want an oxygen mask.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 495
Studio: Warner Bros.
Rating: R 2h7m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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