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. A highly topical and alarming cautionary tale that’s been socked over for maximum visceral impact, “Outbreak” could become a breakout commercial thriller for the early spring.
This is, of course, the viral suspenser that got made, leaving in its tracks Ridley Scott’s onetime competitor, “Crisis in the Hot Zone.” If the rush to get the project off the ground is felt in the finished picture, the gaping credibility gaps possibly caused by hasty scriptwriting are balanced by the urgency of the storytelling. Result is a tale that goes to great lengths initially to establish its real-world believability, only to fly off into the most improbable, nick-of-time heroics that exist only in the universe of the most fantastic fiction.
This transformation from carefully calibrated it-could-happen-here techno-thriller to heavy-hardware Hollywood actioner generates more edge-of-your-seat thrills for the final couple of reels, but also, ironically, makes the film less unsettling than it might have been had it stayed its original course.
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, effected by a single bomb that nukes ’em real high.
Jump to the present, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ extraordinary one-take Steadicam tour of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, where different grades of viruses are partitioned into separate sections of the building. 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, who now works in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
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, smuggled out of a holding facility, taken to a pet store and, ultimately, released into the California wild.
At the same time, the Army higher-ups who conspired to cover up the virus’s history dating back to the ’60s, personified by Gens. McClintock (Sutherland) and Ford (Freeman), pull the “nosy bastard” Col. Daniels off the case, anxious to keep things quiet.
Such is not to be, however. At first attacking the monkey smuggler and his girlfriend, the virus mutates and becomes airborne, very visibly, in a small-town movie theater. The Army moves in to quarantine the town. But it quickly becomes clear that, unless some immediate remedy is found, Gen. McClintock will implement a solution similar to the one he employed years before in Zaire.
So Col. Daniels, who up until now has been an engagingly impudent, pesky gadfly with an appealing soft spot for his ex-wife, is suddenly thrust into the role of last-action hero, compelled to step into the void and, in true Hollywood fashion, save the world.
In the film’s final act, which encompasses a matter of just a few hours, Daniels is required to commandeer, along with the loyal Maj. Salt, an Army helicopter, fly to San Francisco for a little research, jump into a moving freighter at sea in thick fog, solve the mystery of the host monkey, figure out where the little critter might be, outwit an AWACS plane and outmaneuver two fighter choppers, try to save his dying wife’s life and, up in the helicopter again, face down an approaching bomber. Even Arnold and James Bond would be impressed.
All of this ante-upping action stuff takes the film from the realm of the possible to the utterly incredible. But director Wolfgang Petersen handles both assignments with equal finesse. Script by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool organizes its complex and potentially confusing material quite efficiently, and Petersen presents what easily could have been a lot of dry exposition in exceedingly fluid fashion.
Whether scarily charting the spread of the virus or choreographing a cat-and-mouse chase of choppers above a winding riverbed, Petersen demonstrates a smooth stylistic savvy that keeps the film highly absorbing from beginning to end.
From any remotely realistic p.o.v., the events depicted could never happen anywhere near as fast as they do here, and the incubation period of the virus has been compressed for dramatic reasons. Viewers may intuit this while watching , but the filmmakers have paced it all so quickly that questions, holes and implausibilities 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 a heroic part, and Daniels’ tenderness toward and evident longing for his ex-wife adds unexpected grace notes to a very linear narrative. Russo brings considerable warmth to the picture and is convincingly professional as a smart, humane doctor , while Spacey weighs in with some wry comic relief. Freeman and Sutherland convey the necessary authority as the two generals, although it’s no surprise who ends up having a heart.
Technically, this Arnold Kopelson production is aces. Ballhaus’ camera is almost constantly on the prowl, and the film reps a career highlight for this prolific lenser. Editing, production design, score, special effects, stunt work and mostly Northern California locations all contribute significantly to the splendidly slick and accomplished look.