A lot of people, myself included, enjoyed director Andrew Davis's wildly improbable but winning chase flick The Fugitive, which bore little resemblance to the Sixties' TV series upon which it was based. Prior to that Harrison Ford vehicle, Davis had made a name for himself in Hollywood circles as a director of better-than-average action movies; he even performed the seemingly impossible feat of making Steven Seagal watchable in 1992's Under Siege. But then Davis squandered his hard-won reputation by helming 1995's ill-conceived, poorly executed flop Steal Big, Steal Little, which starred Andy Garcia in a dual role as a pair of brothers squabbling over an inheritance. Nothing convinces a filmmaker to scurry back to the safety of the genre that made him famous quicker than a commercial disaster in his first attempt at serious drama. The hostile reception accorded Steal Big, Steal Little, which was reviled by critics and ignored at the box office, convinced Davis to get back into action.
But the director didn't merely return to the genre that made him bankable; he went out and virtually cloned his last big success. Davis's "new" film, Chain Reaction, amounts to little more than a muddled attempt to reconstruct The Fugitive. Call it a remake of a remake. Consider the common plot elements: Both films take place primarily in Chicago and focus on characters wrongly accused of murder and forced to go on the lam until they can clear their names. Each movie opens with a big bang (the massive train wreck in The Fugitive, an explosion at an energy research laboratory that levels eight city blocks in Chain Reaction). Both actioners feature amazingly resourceful and lucky heroes who pull off a string of credibility-straining narrow escapes. In The Fugitive Tommy Lee Jones played the dogged FBI agent who heads up the Bureau's methodical manhunt and eventually comes to believe in his quarry's innocence. Fred Ward assumes the same role in Chain Reaction, but does significantly less with it. And in both films the hero is betrayed by the professional colleague he most trusts.
Keanu Reeves draws the unenviable assignment of attempting to fill Harrison Ford's Fugitive shoes. Reeves plays against type -- as a character with a brain. Just as Andrew Davis needs a hit to repay the debt to society he incurred with the felonious Steal Big, Steal Little, so too Keanu Reeves could use a Speedy return to form to expunge Johnny Mnemonic, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and Little Buddha from his record. At least Davis and the five -- count 'em, five -- screenwriting accomplices it took to slap together this forgery wisely limited Reeves's character, Eddie Kasalivich, to a few lines of dialogue. (And most of those consist of three- and four-word sentences.)
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Eddie is a humble machinist at a laboratory where a team of brilliant scientists is attempting to extract pure energy from the hydrogen atoms in water via a process known as sonoluminescence. The film doesn't explain exactly how this process works; suffice it to say that sound waves play an important part. While working at home our man Eddie -- so numb he rides a motorcycle through the snow in the frigid Chicago winter -- discovers the magic frequency that has eluded his scholarly, more distinguished co-workers. Eddie's boss and mentor (machinists have mentors?) Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman, playing a shadowy technocrat in a part that feels as if it was written for Gene Hackman) warns the celebrating eggheads that their discovery has far-reaching implications and that they shouldn't go around broadcasting news of the breakthrough until the national security risks are better understood. But his cautionary words fall on deaf ears. Almost immediately the head of the project, Dr. Alistair Barkley (Nicholas Rudall), takes to the Internet to spread the word of his team's miraculous accomplishment. That same night someone murders Dr. Barkley, kidnaps his top collaborator, blows the lab to smithereens, and pins the whole thing on poor Eddie Kasalivich and his shy colleague Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz).
As he did with Seagal in Under Siege, Davis elicits a respectable performance from his dubiously talented leading man. But unfortunately that good work is overshadowed by larger ineptitudes, inconsistencies, and improbabilities. One minute Eddie and Lily race frantically through an observatory, searching for an exit while cops close in from outside; the next minute Eddie and Lily are outside scampering across the observatory's lawn while the cops fruitlessly search inside. How did they escape without being seen? No clue. It's up to you, the viewer, to use your imagination, just as it is when the fugitive machinist easily breaches security and strolls right into a top-secret government research and development facility as if it were a mall department store. (Come to think of it, Burdines has far better security.)
Eddie's scientific discovery sets off a chain reaction of increasingly implausible scenarios, culminating in Lily and him being blown out of an elevator shaft and surviving an underground explosion that was probably mistaken for a nuclear weapons test by Chinese seismographers. Director Davis and star Reeves may get to relive The Fugitive yet again -- as they run from the angry producers who invested in this meltdown.
Written by J.F. Lawton, Michael Bortman, Arne Schmidt, Rick Seaman, and Josh Friedman; directed by Andrew Davis; with Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, Fred Ward,and Nicholas Rudall.