The big opening action set piece of “The Peacemaker” involves a Russian train being robbed of its cargo of nuclear arms while rattling down the track, and the entire film sustains that same feeling of being channeled at high speed down an exceedingly narrow path, with nary a pause for thought or catching one’s breath. This long-anticipated first release from DreamWorks Pictures is an uncommonly dour and even grim action thriller that globetrots as diversely as a James Bond film but offers a very limited view politically, emotionally and dramatically. George Clooney and Nicole Kidman aren’t quite lustrous enough as above-the-title performers to get this lavish entry across on star power alone, with OK but less than stellar B.O. the likely result.
Deliberately sacrificing such niceties as character development and modulated storytelling for the sake of a full-speed-ahead approach, Mimi Leder’s debut feature attempts to graft the basic components of a doomsday suspenser onto the gritty realities of a ravaged former Yugoslavia and militarily neutered and insidiously corrupt Russia.
But all the film’s stylistic pushiness and manufactured urgency can’t compensate for the lack of a compelling hook to pull the audience in and make it stay there, other than a generalized and presumed desire to see the good guys, i.e., the West, survive to fight another day.
Pic’s first 15 minutes are devoted to two incidents in which the viewer is supplied with little orientation and no rooting interest: A member of the Bosnian parliament is assassinated, and nine nuclear weapons, destined for dismantling as part of an international disarmament plan, are stolen from the train. A 10th device explodes in a crash, causing a devastating blast that initially is said to be big enough to spread fallout over much of the former USSR and Europe but which subsequently impedes none of the action played out in the vicinity.
Western intelligence naturally takes a quick interest in the incident, and thrust together to piece things together are scientist Dr. Julia Kelly (Kidman), acting head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, and U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Thomas Devoe (Clooney), who has extensive personal contacts in the old Soviet Empire.
Their first stop is Vienna, where their search for the identity of the vehicle now being used to transport the weapons ends in a rude awakening for Kelly, who witnesses the cutthroat brutality with which the old spy game can be played and learns what a tough, ruthless customer her companion is when he savagely beats one man, then engages three pursuing cars in a deadly game of demolition derby in the middle of a picture-postcard city square; Devoe, clearly, is a trained-to-kill, take-no-prisoners, ends-justify-the-means kind of guy.
Satellite pictures reveal that the truck bearing the world’s most dangerous illicit merchandise is headed for the Iranian border, which occasions the film’s third major action sequence when Devoe manages to commandeer three attack helicopters and stop the truck in its tracks on a bridge in mountainous terrain.
Unfortunately, one of the stolen bombs has already disappeared, which sends the heroes to New York City, where, their deductions tell them, an upcoming major United Nations peace conference is sure to draw many international figures, including, perhaps, those who got away with the weapon.
The action finale, which looks as though it must have shut down half of Manhattan’s East Side to shoot, is reasonably impressive, but ends with a possibly inevitable but unavoidably hackneyed race with time to save at least part of the civilized world from a nuclear holocaust.
Essentially, “The Peacemaker” is a pursuit story set against a grand and ever-changing international canvas, and director Leder, best known for her multiple-Emmy-winning work on “ER,” would seem to have had two principal priorities: keeping the picture barreling along in an exceedingly straight line, and capturing some vivid local atmosphere along the way. Unfortunately, this is not enough to cement much of a bond with the viewer, and result of this approach is a picture that feels as though it’s nearly all second unit, or one big, uninterrupted action sequence.
Based on original spadework done by investigative political journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, script by Michael Schiffer (“Crimson Tide”) alternates in its dialogue between information conveyance and shouted commands. Digging with as little depth or nuance as possible into the situations in Russia and the former Yugoslavia, pic seizes plausibly enough upon amoral, militaristic nationalists and pain-and-loss-wracked survivors of ethnic warfare — both of whom blame the West in some way for their sorry predicaments — as those from whom the world has the most to fear.
In playing characters devoted to stamping out these threats on behalf of democracy, Clooney and Kidman are mainly asked to keep moving, most often with urgent dispatch. There are hints at the outset that Clooney’s bad-boy officer is meant to be a charming lady killer and professional scoundrel, but the attempts to give him Bond-like bon mots are only halfhearted, and there is simply no time amidst the chases and explosions for the two characters to develop anything resembling a relationship, much less a romance.
Each character is meant to be awesomely professional and competent; to this end, Clooney supplies a devil-may-care insouciance, while Kidman applies an almost fearsomely serious approach. Both thesps are eminently capable, but here they don’t convey the sort of charisma to suggest larger-than-life figures. Except for Armin Mueller-Stahl, who’s in briefly as an eminent Russian military vet, supporting cast members are essentially unknown and deliver OK work.
Pic is notable for its down-and-dirty detail, and some of its images, such as a convoy of trucks trying to make its way past masses of refugees, have force; logistics look to have been staggering across the boards. Technically, the work here is very skilled, but in the service of a narrowly focused narrative that knows no way to move but straight ahead at full speed.