[Deep Focus]

Lest you think that everything Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen touch by way of their new production company will turn to gold, Dreamworks SKG arrives on the scene with a surprisingly pedestrian thriller. Sitting through this capable but bland nuclear heist yarn is sort of like watching a Porsche do doughnuts in the church parking lot. Nice lines, lots of power under the hood, but jeez -- don't we want to go somewhere in this jobbie?

The Peacemaker spins its wheels for 15 or 20 minutes before grabbing hold of anything at all. We're parties to the tedious hijacking of a trainload of nuclear weapons, as well as to the unexplained assassination of a Sarajevan politician. Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann favors a flat blue cast for these very dark scenes, and you may strain your eyes trying to figure out what's happening up there on the screen.

It all culminates in the detonation of a nuclear missile, the bright orange blast that dots the film's trailers and TV spots. The film's cleverest moment is a sort of match cut from the forward thrust of the atomic firestorm to Nicole Kidman's body underwater, bouncing off the wall of a swimming pool and hurtling toward the camera. Her exercise routine is interrupted by news that a nuclear weapon has gone off in eastern Europe, and she's placed in charge of finding out exactly what the hell has happened.

Reporting to her is George Clooney, a brash but very smart loudmouth who starts working all the angles on the situation before Kidman has finished briefing a roomful of military types. She's got a restrained and scientific mind that considers all the possibilities and wants to understand the psychology of her terrorist nemeses; he's an actions-not-words colonel who favors beating the crap out of the folks who have the information he needs. Naturally, they'll work well together, and their banter back and forth livens the movie up considerably.

The Peacemaker rockets from Bosnia to Vienna to New York City without blinking an eye. It pulls together a terrific car chase, an impressive set piece featuring a big truck and a bridge, and a manic footrace through the streets of Manhattan, complete with snipers and roadblocks, in the service of its mad bomber story. The specifics of the plot aren't important, except that its effort to humanize the villain is hokey and ill-advised, if unusual. At least it's unexpected, which is more than can be said for the screenplay's ham-handed reliance on international political "intrigue" and a generic revenge plot. Beyond that, you've seen it all before -- the nuclear bomb on a timer, the renegade general, the helicopter strike, even the violent climax in a house of worship.

Once disaster has been averted -- whoa, should I have called a spoiler there? Did you think the first Dreamworks SKG release was going to end with the death of half a million people in Manhattan and Queens? -- we're left with an awkward coda in which Clooney and Kidman make plans to finally, well, get together. For a drink. You know, maybe a relationship.

But -- well, let me first say this. I think Kidman is knockout gorgeous, and Clooney is nearly as charming and funny as he thinks he is. The duo is engaging on-screen and neither is embarrassed by what they do here (although Kidman does lapse back into her Australian accent once or twice). But, get this, they're both oddly sexless. Kidman has never before or since seemed as sultry as in, God help us, Batman Forever, and creates nary a stir here. Clooney, meanwhile, seems to inhabit his own private castle, separated from everyone else on-screen as though surrounded by a moat he dug himself, perhaps out of hubris. You have to wonder what they're going to go off and do together -- see a movie? Play Nintendo? The script (by Michael Schiffer of Crimson Tide fame) flatly avoids any romantic chemistry, or even the suggestion of sexual attraction, and with these two as leads, that's just as well.

Director Mimi Leder, known for her work on television's ER, exhibits a rookie's overenthusiasm, tracking and Steadicaming across here and through there, even if she has to cheat by cutting just as the camera moves through a doorway. The technique works for Scorsese, but here it's a futile effort to jazz up some desperately lifeless expository material. The action sequences, by contrast, pump along nicely, due at least in part to able cutting by David Rosenbloom (but not to the ludicrously overheated score by Hans Zimmer). It doesn't hurt, either, that Leder has tremendous resources at her disposal, including the closing of big chunks of Manhattan's east side (hey -- I think I was caught in that traffic jam!). And while the final ticking-bomb minutes may be as hackneyed as anything we've seen this year, The Peacemaker manages to put a slightly new spin on them. All in all, this finally gets pretty exciting but never truly stirring.

Docked a notch for one Pepsi placement too many.

Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Michael Schiffer
Starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman
USA, 1997

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