Friday, June 14, 2013

Outbreak (1995)

Director: Wolfgang Peterson                           Writers: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland

I hate to say it, but this is the story that Michael Crichton always wanted to write but couldn’t. I loved The Andromeda Strain and ER, but little else. He was a poor writer who had interesting ideas, but wrote atrocious dialogue and simplistic if not obtuse motivations. Outbreak, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. It has an airtight plot, with decent dialogue and doesn’t go over the top . . . well, not all the way. Sure, it has the slightly dorky, superstar ensemble work apparent in films as far back as Airport and The Towering Inferno, but it ultimately winds up being a satisfying genre experience.

The story concerns army virologist Dustin Hoffman who, on a mission to Africa, discovers a rare virus that has killed an entire village. The virus was spread through a well, but the entire village is dead. Back home he tells his commanding officer, Morgan Freeman, to put out an alert, but instead he sends him to Mexico to get him out of the way. Meanwhile, and monkey with the virus is captured and makes his way to the U.S. infecting people on the way. When Hoffman learns of the outbreak, he disobeys his orders, heads to a small town where the virus is mutated and can now be spread in the air, and Donald Sutherland as the head of the military tricks the president into nuking the entire town to stop the spread.

Wolfgang Peterson is a talented German director whose crossover film Das Boot was a major hit in the United States. Since then he’s helmed a handful of great thrillers, from In the Line of Fire to the remake of The Poseidon Adventure. But the real credit needs to go to the screenwriters, Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool. Neither writer had very much experience, which was probably in their favor. The story follows some very predicable genre conventions, and yet manages to be unique enough not to be entirely predictable. That’s probably why the project was green-lighted. Peterson was, no doubt, a big enough name that he could gather the requisite talent to make the film a blockbuster.

The cast is top drawer, and there are several subplots that enliven the story. In addition to the principals, Dale Dye plays an army colonel, Kevin Spacey is one of the virologists, and Rene Russo plays Hoffman’s wife, a scientist who is every bit his equal. Aiding Hoffman on his quest to defeat the virus is soldier Cuba Gooding, Jr., and the magnificent J.T. Walsh plays the president’s chief of staff. Outbreak is not great cinema, but it is genre filmmaking at its best. It’s just a solid story, with an all-star cast that delivers a satisfying medical thriller to the audience that can appreciate it.

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