Vile and Viral

Outbreak is a true paranoid's wet dream, and something very scary for those with normal fears. For two thrilling hours, the audience is skillfully tortured with an orchestration of what we all dread: the vivid spectacle of hemorrhagic fevers; deranged government conspiracies and cover-ups; heavily armed troops showing up on the front lawn; giant, galloping, unresolvable moral issues taxing the hearts and minds of good men; and being chased by Donald Sutherland in a helicopter. All this, and a delicious, back-and-forth dance between naked fear of, and slobbering respect for, two types of authority figures -- doctors and Army men.

Wolfgang Petersen, director of In the Line of Fire, has done a dandy job here. The plot clicks along like a roller coaster, carefully paced so that after every thrill we get a break -- a comedic moment or something -- that lets us catch our breath so we can be fully aware when we're hit with the next long drop.

Right out of the gate, we know what kind of ride we're in for. Before the opening credits, we see people bleeding from the eyes and ears in a remote jungle village while General McClintock (Sutherland) marches around coldly issuing orders. Clearly, he's a bad guy, and the virus is even worse. Then, the credits role over techno-junkie porn -- luridly detailed scenes of jovial eggheads laboring in the top secret isolation chambers of USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases). Clearly, Dr. Roberta "Robby" Keough (Rene Russo) and Dr. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) are highly skilled virologists who believe in truth, justice and everything else Superman fought for.

This movie has, perhaps, a more realistic and less metaphorical plot than Them (and certainly more open rebellion from the good guys), but what matters to a moviegoer is how hard it is to sit still, keep one's eyes open and survive to the end of the ride. On that thrills and chills scale, Outbreak differs from a quality giant mutant creature feature from the '50s in only one way: in Outbreak, the mutant creature is a tiny virus. The virus, of course, mutates on its own. That's what they do; they get better, stronger, faster and start spiking proteins all by themselves -- you have to admire that. At least that's what the USAMRIID virologists say. They deliver the same "purity equals beauty" speech that Richard Dreyfuss used in Jaws and the android used in Alien. But the virologists seem to forget what happens to those who admire efficient killers.

The Outbreak killer invades the U.S.A. simply: a sleazeball steals a monkey from quarantine with the idea of bootlegging it to a pet store, the monkey spits on the man, the man, already seriously ill, shoves his tongue down his girlfriend's throat -- and the next thing you know, a picturesque small town is full of ravaged people puking black blood over their picket fences.

These people -- the infected and the small-town doctors who panic when their patients begin dying luridly -- aren't just extras lurching around like zombies. Petersen makes sure that every face in the movie is a unique story element. Rather than having a few stars acting like mad against a backdrop of supernumeraries, we get genuine people in every scene. The innocent, infected people of Cedar Creek, California; pitiful case number 612; and the little girl who befriends the deadly monkey are all entirely believable.

Not that the central characters are slouches. As the unlikely hero, Dustin Hoffman is a resolute Pogo Possum figure. When the hero is a classic figure -- Clint Eastwood, for instance -- it's hard to imagine that the good guy won't triumph. When the hero is Hoffman, barking orders and leaping into helicopters, it's hard not to worry about the little guy.

Hero he is, though, and with a partner and something of a love interest. Kevin Spacey, sporting yet another hair color, is Hoffman's sly, dry-witted sidekick. The love interest, so to speak, is Russo. One of the extra twists is that Keough and Daniels have just divorced, and yet must work together to fight the deadly Motaba virus. Rene Russo has never made a movie that wasn't a hit, and in Outbreak this skilled actress shows once again that she deserves credit for more than great looks and good film choices.

Donald Sutherland is so good at icy nastiness that he could probably have played the part of the polished villain in his sleep. But he's actor enough to give 110 percent. The one other ugly character, the infected monkey salesman, is played by Patrick Dempsey, who displays a suspected but heretofore undemonstrated flair for sleaziness.

Dyed-in-the-wool good guys and pure villains don't have moral qualms. That terror is reserved for the middleman, General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman). Ford's under General McClintock and over Sam Daniels, and is, really, the conscience of the story. The issues are examined not when McClintock and Daniels state their cases, but as Ford struggles to do right. McClintock has a couple of sound points: what's done is done and, end of the Cold War or no, we're not living in a peaceful world. Daniels has a good argument, too: innocent people should not die just so a few high-level government men can protect their careers. Of course, Daniels hurts his case when he offers to protect a select two. And he isn't naive; he knows that his research has been used to not only save lives, but also build biological weapons.

The real deal, though, is that this virus must be stopped. Ford knows, and he knows that Daniels knows, that if the only way to stop the virus is to drop a bomb and vaporize 2,600 Californians, then that's the only course of action.

Is dropping bombs the only answer? Is that the only way to stop the deadly Motaba virus? And, if Motaba is stopped, are there more where it came from? These are the sort of questions that make Outbreak a suspense film.

Motaba is fictional. But it's based on a real virus: Ebola Zaire, a killer from Africa that almost got loose in the posh suburbs of Virginia. And because it's based on "scientific fact," Outbreakis fueled by the same juice as '50s atomic-theme movies -- the fear that in our rush toward technology, or development, we'll go too far and end up finding something that will turn around and destroy us all. As we push into the jungles of central Africa and the South American rain forest, we discover microscopic pathogens that could make the Black Death look like a bad allergic reaction. It's the sort of thing that can keep you up nights. But it's also the sort of thing that can make for good entertainment.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
With Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman.
Rated R.
128 minutes.


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