Much as I'd like to report otherwise, Outbreak, the new film by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot; In the Line of Fire), cuts no new swaths from the chase-the-good-guy-and-race-the-clock cloth. In this rendition, a decades-old virus, developed by the U.S. government for biological warfare, re-emerges in Zaire and wipes out a village near its original 1960s development site. The opening sequence shows an army bomber obliterating the infected village in the '60s. The bombardment was meant to leave no trace of the virus, or of anyone who knew about it, which of course it fails to do. Instead, it leaves no trace of doubt as to the theme of the movie: the government (as we've been shown many times before) will do anything it has to do to cover its behind. If you've seen The Andromeda Strain, and you're not a fan of any of the principal actors, you can go now.
If you stick around, you'll see that, three decades later, the virus has again reared its ugly sub-microscopic head. After it finishes with the Motaba River Valley, it hitches a ride aboard a capuchin monkey and heads Stateside, infecting and quickly killing assorted monkey-handlers, until it settles down in a quiet little town of 2600, out in Utah. By this time, of course, it has mutated into a far deadlier, airborne virus - a sort of influenza on steroids - and it can go about its business of giving a theater-full of movie-goers mushy skin lesions and optic hemorrhaging. (Just try, after watching a virus's-eye view of a movie theater, to avoid noticing the coughs and sniffles of other audience members.)
At this point, it's up to our hero, infectious-disease expert Sam Jeffries (Dustin Hoffman, of all people), to dodge the military guys and find the cure, all the while attempting to win back the affections of his ex-wife, infectious-disease expert Robby Keough (Rene Russo). Where does he find the time? If anyone offers you a bet as to the outcome of either of these endeavors, I hope you've seen enough of these movies to save your money. Jeffries looks like the underdog here, but he's got all the advantages: an ace helicopter pilot, a Hippocratically-motivated conscience, a brave heart, and the love of a good woman. He also has better luck than his colleagues, who keep infecting themselves through incredibly stumblebum maneuvers, and he's got a four-member team of writers (a committee, really) that knows he's the good guy. And after all, the good guy must emerge victorious, no matter how steep the odds.
For all its predictability, though, Outbreak is never quite dull. In portraying the research team's efforts to track down the source of the virus, first on paper and then in action, Petersen employs the sort of science-made-exciting narration that impelled The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. Many of the characters manage to overcome the constraints of the genre, and the dynamics between them often keep the film moving through otherwise-dry background sequences. Morgan Freeman, as Jeffries's boss, Gen. Billy Ford, even manages a certain unpredictability, in depicting the struggles of a man choosing which to save: his hide or humanity. There are even moments when it's possible to pretend you don't know what's coming next - call it a willing suspension of anticipation. But the pace would need to be pretty lively to sustain the illusion of suspense through the entire movie. And, while it has its up-tempo moments, Outbreak is not exactly what you might call a wild ride.
Casting is this movie's strong suit. Freeman, Russo, and Hoffman conquer the shortcomings of the dialogue to flesh out characters of unusual depth for the genre. Even with such chestnut lines as, "It's about that sacred oath we took," Hoffman keeps Jeffries interesting. He's the little infectious-disease specialist with a big heart and a bigger mission; you have to admire Hoffman for having the guts to take the part - let alone for having the wherewithal to make us buy into it, even skeptically. The real thespian hero of the picture, though, is Donald Sutherland, as the amoral army brass whose career is on the line. Sutherland almost managed to save Oliver Stone's J.F.K. as The Source, a government insider who does the right thing. In Outbreak, he's switched sides. "Be compassionate," he hisses, "but be compassionate globally." No doubt about it - this guy's despicable. But Sutherland keeps us from getting too self-righteous; we can't quite be sure we wouldn't do the same thing, in his position.
Watching good actors make the best of a so-so situation isn't
necessarily the most compelling reason to go see a movie. It is one
reason, though, and to some extent, a thriller is what it is. If you
feel as though you've seen this movie one too many times already,
you're probably right. If you don't mind seeing it again, or if you
want to try to figure out what made all these heavyweight actors take
the gig, then Outbreak is worth checking out. At any rate, it's
better than hemorrhaging from the eyes. The makeup artists did, by all
means, earn their daily wage.