NBC recently made a movie that capitalized on Y2K fears. CBS tackled an earthquake in New York. It only goes to follow that ABC would address germ phobia just in time for the cold and flu season. Next up: Global Warming, the miniseries.
A slick but predictable drama, “Runaway Virus” is billed as “suggested by the magazine article ‘The Dead Zone’ by Malcolm Gladwell.” Truth is, you could name a dozen movies or telepics with the same plot. But earnest perfs by its stars and exemplary production values elevate pic from complete dog to harmless diversion. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday night.
Paige Turco (“NYPD Blue”) stars as scientist Jenny Blanchard, a self-proclaimed “grudge holder” with a long memory — so long, in fact, it pre-dates her tumultuous relationship with Dr. Daniel Rothman (Jason Beghe), the newest member to join the Centers for Disease Control — indeed, it goes all the way back to 1918: Blanchard, much to the derision of her co-workers, is obsessed with the Spanish flu epidemic that killed 30 million people in the early part of the 20th century, among them Jenny’s familial namesake. She carries her picture in a locket, which she frequently kisses for luck.
The CDC, however, doesn’t have time to linger in the past, considering the latest crisis is a report of a swine-killing flu in Guatemala.
Thanks to heroic efforts by Dr. Rothman, the virus is supposedly contained in a remote village, until it is discovered that Rita (Jacqueline Aries), sister of a flu victim, has fled the village to Los Angeles to reunite with her boyfriend. Rita, natch, is infected, and it becomes a race against time to find either her or a cure for the virus. As it turns out, the antidote may be buried with a bunch of Siberian coal miners who died — you guessed it — during the epidemic of 1918.
Director Jeff Bleckner structures pic so as not to focus so much on the chase to find Rita, but rather on the clever ways in which the medical types devise plans to thwart another outbreak and appease the ever-pressuring Surgeon General (Lorena Gale).
This cerebral approach is a nice change for films of this ilk, but it diminishes any real sense of urgency. Perri and David Klass’ script briefly addresses the lucrative payoffs outbreaks like this can have for pharmaceutical companies, but never follows through or makes any really bold statements to that regard.
The film does bring up a few interesting issues when it appears the entire city of Los Angeles may be at risk of an epidemic. The Hispanic community worries about the implications that an illegal alien is spreading the disease, while the black community argues that the vaccination centers favor predominantly white neighborhoods. Mostly though, script is unremarkable, with characters issuing dialogue like, “I’ll get you the money, you make the miracle.”
Also, Rita conveniently infects only scumbags and low-lifes on her journey to America, and it isn’t explained until late in the movie why these people die so quickly while Rita coughs and hacks her way to the border.
Turco, a promising actress, does a decent job as the ice-princess scientist whose heart is slowly melted by her old flame, played rather smugly by the unappealing Beghe. We know her heart is softening throughout the film, not because of any great chemistry or acting, but rather because her hair transforms from a tightly wound bun to a cascading mane of curls by the end of the film.
Supporting perfs, including the corpulent Larry Drake as CDC honcho Dr. Griggs, are adequate, although Tamlyn Tomita is given a big setup as the ambitious Dr. Chao, a possible rival for Dr. Rothman’s affection, only to be left standing there with little to do.
Tech credits, including Brian J. Reynold’s lensing are impressive, with Debbie Shine’s costume design, especially the Guatemalan attire, particularly noteworthy.