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Back to the Future

The trouble with so many movies about tomorrow is that they seem so much like yesterday's news.

Take Virtuosity, the latest in the current rash of science fiction films about the dark side of high tech. The plot relies heavily on a premise (amoral technocrats take over a privatized law-enforcement system) that's at least as old as RoboCop. Denzel Washington stars as a disgraced ex-cop who's sprung from a futuristic prison to battle the bad guy -- just like Sylvester Stallone's disgraced ex-cop was sprung from a futuristic prison to battle the bad guy in Demolition Man.

Bright and busy and unabashedly bombastic, Virtuosity is yet another example of B-movie schlock disguised with A-movie trappings. The special effects obviously didn't come cheap, and there are enough of them, especially in the film's first half, to distract you from the slapdash, by-the-numbers scriptwriting. In fact, there may be too many distractions here for the movie's own good. According to the production notes, Elizabeth Dean, the boss lady played with harrumphing disdain by Louise Fletcher, is supposed to a "presidentially appointed crime czar." Well, maybe. Unless I missed something, however, she's never clearly identified as such in the movie. It's obvious that, given the way almost everybody accedes to her wishes, she must be the one who signs the checks. But, hey, she could be the mayor, or the police chief, or even the city comptroller.

It says a lot about director Brett Leonard's regard for detail, character development and narrative logic that at least two authors whose works he has adapted for the screen, Stephen King (The Lawnmower Man) and Dean Koontz (Hideaway) have publicly denounced his efforts. Virtuosity isn't an adaptation, but rather an original screenplay, yet even so, it has the air of something taken from something else. The breakneck pacing, the flashy technical stuff and the slam-bang stunt work ensure you won't be bored. But as you sit through Virtuosity, you may feel like you're watching an extremely long coming-attractions trailer. When it's over, you're impressed -- but still hungry for a real movie.

That's not to say that Virtuosity is utterly useless. The most entertaining aspect of the entire movie -- and, indeed, the movie's major selling point -- is the exuberant malevolence of Sid 6.7, a modern-day Frankenstein's Monster played by Russell Crowe. Sid is introduced as the object of an intense manhunt in a training program at the Law Enforcement Technology Advancement Center (LETAC). He isn't quite real -- he's the digitized figure in a virtual reality simulator -- but that doesn't mean he can't be lethal. As the movie starts, he's responsible for the death of a human guinea pig. Another test subject, the disgraced ex-cop played by Washington, very nearly becomes Sid's second victim. LETAC staffers aren't all that worried about Washington's fate -- after all, he is merely a convict who's serving a zillion-year sentence for killing the terrorist who killed his wife and daughter. (This sentence may seem unduly harsh, but only until you discover that, after killing the killer, he also mistakenly knocked off a couple of innocent bystanders.) But the crime czar can't help worrying whether Sid 6.7 might be harmful to the health of decent folks as well.

Faced with the prospect of being obliterated with a press of the delete button, Sid schemes to escape from virtual reality into real reality. Fortunately, the software designer who created him is more than willing to protect his masterwork. Even more fortunately, another LETAC whiz kid just happens to working on something called nanotechnology, right down the hall from the VR room. (How convenient.) In plain English, this means that the LETAC wiz is developing an android that can serve as the hardware for the Sid 6.7 software. Not surprisingly, nothing good comes of this.

To give them fair credit, Leonard and screenwriter Eric Bernt do manage to come up with a few genuinely clever ideas. Out in the real world, Sid goes about his wickedness with a breezily deranged insouciance that suggests a game-show host from hell. This aspect of the character gets darkly comical emphasis at least twice, during a hostage situation and, much later, an interactive talk show. On both occasions, Russell Crowe does everything but literally bounce off the walls to establish himself as the zestiest flesh-and-blood cartoon since Jim Carrey in The Mask.

Even before he breaks free of virtual reality, Crowe (with considerable help from the special effects crew) is dazzling. At once elfin and satanic, lighter than air and crueler than fate, he spins himself into swan dives, then cartwheels across the horizons of massive computer monitors. Nothing else in Virtuosity matches Crowe's inspired, demonic daffiness. Denzel Washington definitely doesn't. As the once and future executioner of Sid 6.7, Washington gives a thoroughly professional performance that is no better or worse than what a dozen or so other actors could have done with the part. (Though chances are good that if one of those other actors were white, Virtuosity wouldn't be so lily-livered about suggesting a romantic attraction between the ex-cop and the beautiful psychologist, played by Kelly Lynch, that he's forced to work with.) It turns out that Washington's character has a personal score to settle with Sid 6.7: the original VR software was programmed with personality components from Hitler, Charles Manson and, among many other miscreants, the same terrorist who killed Washington's family. This is a shameless contrivance, to be sure, but at least it gives Crowe an excuse to pop off with the movie's very best line: "Hi, buddy! How's the wife and kid? Still dead?"

Virtuosity.
Directed by Brett Leonard. Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Kelly Lynch.

Rated R.
96 minutes.

 
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