Philly Beefcake

Finally, director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Fisher King) and screenwriters David Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and Janet Peoples (The Day After Trinity) have managed to address the complaints of moviegoers upset by the quantity of gratuitous female nudity and the corresponding dearth of male nekkidness on display in modern U.S. cinema. The filmmakers' flashy new pseudo-sci-fi flick 12 Monkeys showcases both Bruce Willis's and -- are you sitting down? -- Brad Pitt's bare derrieres. Meanwhile the boys' hauntingly beautiful costar Madeleine Stowe gets to keep her blouse buttoned and her knickers zipped.

Granted, two pink moons hardly begin to compensate for all those R-rated films that have found some flimsy excuse for their male leads to detour into a strip club in an effort to up the flicks' jiggle factor. But it's a start. Okay, okay -- Robin Williams freed his willy for Gilliam's camera in The Fisher King, and Willis, who gleefully doffed his drawers for Color of Night only to allow the film's editors to perform a Lorena Bobbitt on his pride and joy in order to bring the rating down to an R from an NC-17, appears to have locked into a vicious exhibitionist's duel with his surgically augmented wife Demi Moore. But we're talking Brad Pitt here A hunk du jour. Man, when a star of that magnitude drops trou, it's news! Hollywood enters the Nineties.

Entering the Nineties is also the goal of Willis's character in 12 Monkeys, a man named James Cole, who has to travel back in time to return to the last decade of the Twentieth Century. Cole hails from a cold, desolate, postapocalyptic Philadelphia circa 2035. A lethal virus, presumed to have been unleashed by a radical animal-rights commando group that calls itself the Army of the 12 Monkeys, has eradicated some five billion people -- roughly 99 percent of the planet's population -- and has rendered the Earth's surface uninhabitable for humans. (Animals are not affected by the microorganism and have therefore reclaimed dominion over the land.) Surviving homo sapiens have gone underground -- literally. And they are miserable down there: artificial light, moldy air, chemically treated water, dehumanizing architecture, and you can't even find a good steak sandwich any more.

But they have one thing Philadelphia in 1996 doesn't -- a time machine. A panel of scientists singles out Cole because of the vividness of his recurring precataclysmic dreams, requisitioning him against his will for the job of traveling back to 1996 to track down the origins of the deadly virus. Unfortunately for the reluctant volunteer, there are still a few bugs in the machine. First it deposits him in 1990, where he is remanded into the care of renowned psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe, playing the latest in a long line of sexy shrinks that includes Lena Olin in Mr. Jones, Richard Gere in Final Analysis, Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever, and Willis in Color of Night) and meets rabble-rousing fellow mental patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt gone hilariously haywire), whose father is a prominent virologist. After the time machine rescues Cole from that ugly scenario in the nick of time (Gilliam uses the wrong-turn plot convention to take a few jabs at the sorry state of mental health care in this country, as well as to trot out that old "who's nuttier, the mental patients or society?" argument), it screws up yet again, this time dropping a buck-naked Cole into a trench during World War I. He promptly gets shot in the leg. Finally the contraption sucks him back in and spits him out in 1996 so that the final race-against-time, billions-of-lives-in-the-balance sequence can occur.

Stripped down to its bare essentials, this sci-fi plot offers little that fans of the genre haven't seen many times before. But it provides Gilliam with a canvas upon which to splash the dazzling colors of his formidable imagination: glorious fantasy, stark reality, and eye-popping visuals -- business as usual from the man who made Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. At once funky and phantasmagoric, Gilliam's vision hops from nightmare to nightmare, from the oppressive makeshift technology of the subterranean future to the horrifying carnage of a World War I battlefield to the medical tyranny of the contemporary nut house. Imagine dropping acid with Kafka and Orwell. The world may suck in 1996 but, from Gilliam's perspective, it's a damn sight prettier than the alternatives. (In fact, that becomes Cole's biggest problem -- he likes it here. He doesn't want to go back to the future.)

All three principal actors -- Stowe, Pitt, and Willis -- deliver outstanding performances. Like John Travolta, Willis's rival for the title of mid-Nineties comeback king, the much-maligned leading man and Planet Hollywood partner is on a career roll that began with Pulp Fiction and continues to gather steam. He's a knockout as the desperate, decade-hopping protagonist. Pitt absolutely dazzles in the early going as the wired, rebellious young mental patient, although his performance sags a bit -- to the level of merely excellent -- once his character re-enters the "real" world. Coming on the heels of his winning turn as the brash young homicide cop in Seven, this role cements Pitt's status as the leading marquee name of his generation. The last thespian with Pitt's combination of looks, acting ability, and star quality was that blue-eyed fellow who manufactures salad dressing nowadays. And Madeleine Stowe A how does one translate an extended sigh into print? Like Pitt, she possesses both the acting skills and the physical attractiveness to push her to the head of her class.

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