The Austin Chronicle


Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Kevin Spacey.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., March 17, 1995

Outbreak has the feel of a movie written by a committee of writers -- it's totally lacking in personality. Starting off promisingly as a medical thriller about a deadly African airborne virus that mysteriously infects a rural northern Californian town, it soon mutates into one of those action-packed movies in which the plot points become increasingly preposterous… and you're aware of its idiocy every second of the way. Here, a subplot in which the U.S. Army imposes martial law in the quarantined community ultimately envelops the film when the President signs off on the military's plan to firebomb the town in order to contain the spread of the epidemic. (As the blue-eyed, silver-haired villain of the film, Sutherland's cold-blooded general in charge of the operation is as hissable as they come.) By the film's end, the possibility of a flu-like killer plague in the United States is overshadowed by the prospect of the American government intentionally killing its own citizenry. Director Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) is on track in the film's first half, creating tension in the epidemiological race to solve the puzzle of the outbreak's source and its solution, but once the movie resorts to helicopter chases and other action genre staples, he's lost control of it. Hoffman is plainly out of his element here in a role that is less cerebral than anything he's ever done before. This is his River Wild, but he can't navigate the rapids; he's stiff and uncomfortable as an action hero. For the most part, supporting players Spacey and Gooding, Jr. steal the show from old pros like Hoffman and Freeman, who are saddled with acting out the film's clichéd conflict in conscience. Screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool's attempt to give Outbreak some human dimension in the relationship between Hoffman and Russo, newly divorced yet still tethered to each other by virtue of their work, is to little avail. The big emotional scene between these two, in which Russo lies dying in a hospital bed, would have been a hundredfold more powerful had the movie stuck to its principles rather than digress the way it does. By the time the obligatory happy ending comes along after heroic (and unbelievable) acts of courage save the day, you'll probably wish that movies could be vaccinated, so that they don't succumb to the type of stupid notions that infect Outbreak.

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