For, Friday, March 20, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Crazy times in the infected USA. And in shake-it-up Utah. So am I sick to be thinking about movies like ‘Contagion’ and ‘Earthquake’? Maybe. Those two pictures and many others were released outside of my 20-year movie-reviewing window, but I did assess the thriller ‘Outbreak’ some 23 years ago. If you’re up for it, it’s worth checking out — on DVD or Netflix, where it can be easily accessed, and probably other streaming sites — if only to see Dustin Hoffman as an action hero! My review was published in the Deseret News on Feb. 11, 1997.

"Outbreak" is the ultimate government-paranoia flick, another one of those "B" movies with an "A" budget that goes for edge-of-the-seat suspense at the expense of logic and common sense.

Thankfully, in terms of sheer entertainment value, "Outbreak" delivers the goods … but you probably shouldn't think about it too much as you leave the theater.

A brief pre-credits sequence sets up the U.S. government as the generic villain, and a military adviser named McClintock (Donald Sutherland) as the specific villain: A deadly virus wipes out a small village in Zaire in 1967, leaving several American soldiers among those who are sick and dying. To eradicate the plague and prevent it from spreading, McClintock orders the entire village blown to bits.

Nearly 30 years later, the virus resurfaces — this time in America. While it threatens to spread across the nation the bug is momentarily confined to a small California town where military and civilian doctors work to find a cure. But to do so, they need the host that is spreading the disease (a monkey that has been illegally smuggled into the country).


    Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, 'Outbreak' (1997)

But while those doctors work to save lives and prevent further infection, crazy McClintock, now a general, wants to blow up the California town just as he did that village in the African rainforest.


The film's success hinges largely on this race against time, though the plot does get a bit more complicated as the film progresses. And the action frequently shifts viewpoints, which at times is disconcerting but generally keeps things hopping. (As with that high-tech moment when the camera takes us through a hospital air duct or when those germs are floating in a movie theater.)


The central character is Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), the first doctor to identify the disease. Later, he is joined in his effort to break it down and find its origin by his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), a civilian doctor, and an expert military team (Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey).


Their boss is Gen. Ford (Morgan Freeman), also a doctor, who is torn between his oath and the orders from his own superior, Gen. McClintock. (There is a brief Utah connection, by the way — a moment when Ford calls McClintock at Dugway Proving Ground.)


"Outbreak" isn't the first virus-as-world-threat movie, of course. It's a science-fiction genre that began in the silent era and whose most famous antecedents are probably 1971's "The Andromeda Strain" and "The Stand," last year's television miniseries based on Stephen King's novel.




Cuba Gooding Jr., left, Dustin Hoffman, 'Outbreak' (1997)


Yet, in some ways, the film that "Outbreak" most resembles is "Dr. Strangelove," especially with the character of McClintock, who bears a striking resemblance to that film's Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the hawk who sends bombers to Russia.


The main difference, of course, is that "Outbreak" is meant to be taken seriously while "Dr. Strangelove" is satire. Oddly, more humor might have made "Outbreak" a better film.


As it is, the crackling action scenes make the film work, thanks to breakneck pacing and pulse-pounding direction by Wolfgang Petersen ("In the Line of Fire," "Das Boot"). He keeps things moving at such a rapid clip that audiences will likely overlook its contrivances — and "Outbreak" certainly has more than its share of those, especially toward the end. (The screenplay is by physician and first-time screenwriter Laurence Dworet, with his writing partner Robert Roy Pool.)


An even more serious problem, however, is a more surprising one — Dustin Hoffman's stiff performance. To say that Hoffman seems ill-at-ease playing a hero in the Harrison Ford vein is to understate. And there are places where he simply seems all wrong.


The other actors, however — Russo, Gooding, Spacey, Sutherland, Freeman, et al. — are perfectly cast and perform quite well. (Although it is too bad that Spacey's comic relief is all too abruptly pre-empted.)


On a pure entertainment/excitement level, "Outbreak" is intense enough to keep your adrenalin pumped up. Even if it doesn't hold up all that well to post-screening scrutiny.


It is rated R for violence, some gore and a fair amount of profanity.