Rather like the mutated virus that propels its story, Outbreak starts out as one movie and becomes another before it’s over. While the first one is considerably more frightening and plausible than the second, the entire film has been put together with such skill and attention to viewer excitement that audiences will readily swallow the whole enchilada without a burp.
Smashing opening sequence shows the ravaging effects of a mystery virus on a mercenary camp in Zaire in 1967. Two men in insulated hooded suits, whose faces are unseen but who sound amazingly like Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman, proceed with a scorched-earth approach to eradicating the disease and any trace of its victims.
Jump to the present, and when another instance of such a devastating plague is detected in a Zairian village, ace army medic Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) is sent in, along with associates Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey) and the green but highly trained Maj. Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr), to assess the damage. Daniels is convinced that the virus could spread to the United States, or anywhere else, at any time, and so informs his ex-wife, Robby (Rene Russo), also an infectious disease expert.
In a breathless, disturbingly credible stretch of narrative, pic indelibly shows how the virus’s ‘host,’ an African monkey, is captured in the jungle, transported by a sailor to San Francisco and, ultimately, released into the Californean wild. At the same time, the army higher-ups who conspired to cover up the virus’ history dating back to the ’60s pull the ‘nosy bastard’ Col. Daniels off the case, anxious to keep things quiet.
Director Wolfgang Petersen demonstrates a smooth stylistic savvy that keeps the film highly absorbing from beginning to end. Questions, holes and implausabilities are lost in the rearview mirror before one can sort them out mentally.
With all the running around he’s required to do, this isn’t one of Hoffman’s deeper or quirkier performances, but his Everyman quality is welcome in the heroic part. Russo is convincingly professional as a smart, humane doctor, while Spacey weighs in with some wry comic relief.