Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Chain Reaction (1996)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

A student machinist (Keanu Reeves) finds himself caught in a maze of secret government cover-ups, hi-tech espionage and murder after working on a ground-breaking scientific experiment. Eddie Kasalivich (Reeves) and Lily Sinclair (Rachel Wiesz) are part of a team of scientists who have developed a revolutionary new source of energy. But no sooner have they finished celebrating their triumph, than their lab is destroyed and the head of their team killed. Named as the main suspects, Eddie and Lily quickly realize their only hope lies with a powerful and mysterious bureaucrat (Morgan Freeman) who may or may not be on their side.

Director: Andrew Davis
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, Fred Ward, Kevin Dunn, Brian Cox, Joanna Cassidy
Box Office: Budget: $55 million. Opening Weekend: $7.546 million (2255 screens). Gross: $20.55 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1, English Dolby Surround 2.0, French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 24 chapters; rated PG-13; 106 min.; $22.98; street date 5/22/01.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; TV Spots.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Jerry Goldsmith

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A(DTS), A-(Dolby Digital)/D-

Call it a case of the “sophomore slump” - sort of. Okay, 1993’s The Fugitive wasn’t the first film from director Andrew Davis, and it wasn’t even his initial success; he’d done fairly well with a couple of Steven Seagal offerings, 1988’s Above the Law and 1992’s Under Siege. However, The Fugitive put Davis on the map; not only did it earn a boatload of money, but it also was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, an honor that doesn’t usually greet action flicks.

Apparently 1996’s Chain Reaction wasn’t Davis’ follow-up to The Fugitive; I checked on IMDB and he made a comedy called Steal Big, Steal Little in 1995 - boy did that one slip under the old radar! In any case, CR marked the director’s return to the action field he’d plowed so successfully in 1993, so I had big expectations for a terrific flick.

Unfortunately, when Davis returned to the genre, he came back without his imagination. In Chain Reaction we find a near-remake of The Fugitive. One might think that a rip-off of a film based on a TV show is a bad thing, and one might be correct; while CR has its moments, the lack of inspiration clearly harms it.

At the start of the film, we learn that some researchers working out of the University of Chicago have developed an alternate energy source. Since it comes from water, this power would literally solve any kinds of energy crises, and it seems to be a revolutionary idea. However, someone doesn’t want it to get out, and early on, we see a giant explosion that serves as an attempt to cancel the project.

Student machinist Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) barely escapes, and he’s soon targeted as the culprit. Of course he’s innocent, but Bigger Powers are at work here, and they use him as the convenient scapegoat to cover their tracks. As such, Eddie and fellow researcher Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz of The Mummy) hit the road as they attempt to keep one step ahead of the baddies and the cops and also stay alive.

Essentially, CR is The Fugitive with a younger lead, a romantic interest, and a more revolutionary technology as its plot device. In the older film, the prime factor was a flawed drug whose side effects needed to be kept under wraps by the baddies; this was a believable motivation but it doesn’t compare with the world-altering impact the new fuel would have.

Unfortunately, the broader scope of the technology in CR came to be a bad thing, as it makes some of the film’s characters look naďve and/or stupid. Some characters opine that if the new fuel is introduced too rapidly - i.e., immediately - that the impact upon the world’s economies would be catastrophic, and I’m inclined to agree. There’s a whole lot of money involved in our current energy sources, and to simply eradicate them overnight would likely toss the world into a spin.

However, our protagonists take the insanely optimistic view that “the people can handle it”. Sure, the people are ready; as gas prices continue to rise, I’m darned hyped for some free fuel! But that’s not the point. Hey, if the world suddenly concluded that gold was worthless and created an economic standard based on corn chips, things would likely become rather topsy-turvy.

Unfortunately, Chain Reaction prefers to gloss over things in a more simple manner and create a routine tale of good and evil. The villains in The Fugitive were more complex and realistic, while those of CR stick largely to the “evil organization” bent. It makes them less compelling and means that the movie lacks much depth.

Weisz’ character seems to exist for no reason other than to add some romantic interest between someone and Keanu; maybe thought The Fugitive suffered because its protagonist didn’t go after any babes and this was an attempt to rectify that. In any case, Weisz has little to do in the film other than complicate matters for Keanu; inevitably, she gets taken by the baddies and used as bait to lure him into their traps.

It all seems rather unconvincing, and I just can’t get away from the film’s overwhelming similarities to The Fugitive. In both, we have apparently sympathetic characters who seem to help our heroes but who have different agendas. In CR, Morgan Freeman takes on the role of Paul Shannon, a backer of the new energy project who has a mysterious agenda. I adore the work of Freeman, but he’s a dud here as he sleepwalks through his scenes.

Many folks love to bash poor old Keanu, but I rarely have any real problems with his work. No, he’s not one of the great thespians of his time, but when placed in the right project - such as The Matrix or Speed or even River’s Edge he can offer more than acceptable work. While I’m not sure I believe him as a college student - especially since there’s no apparent attempt to make him a grad student, which would better explain his age - Keanu seemed fine in the role; he was able to deliver the part’s necessities. Since that meant he had to do little more than run from people and the like, the demands were minor, and he did okay.

He also has to ride a motorbike, which led to one of the film’s silliest moments. In an apparent attempt to outdo the famous train wreck scene from The Fugitive, during CR Keanu has to outrun a nuclear blast on his bike. Um… okay. Admittedly, it’s a fairly exciting scene, but the stretching of reality seemed a little extreme.

As a whole, I thought that parts of Chain Reaction were similarly interesting. Despite the many flaws in logic and believability, the film starts well enough and manages to provide some moments of fun. However, it quickly becomes weighed down by the generic plot and the obvious similarities to The Fugitive. Comparisons are fine when the movie in question is better than the older work. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here, and Chain Reaction feels like little more than a dumbed-down version of The Fugitive.

The DVD:

Chain Reaction appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not completely flawed, the movie looked quite terrific on this disc and it only displayed a few minor concerns.

Sharpness consistently appeared to be quite solid. The movie showed a couple of modestly fuzzy scenes, but as a whole, the picture looked crisp and well-defined. I thought it was a detailed image that largely came across as accurate and distinct. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but I did see a few moderate print flaws. Occasional examples of speckles and grit marred the presentation. Frankly, these were fairly minor during most of the film, but they seemed significant enough to knock my grade down to a “B+”; I can excuse a few very small defects and keep a DVD at “A”-level, but Chain Reaction slightly exceeded my tolerance level.

Otherwise, the picture looked solid. CR featured a rather subdued palette. Much of the movie worked from a metallic blue tone that kept the proceedings “cool”, but warmer colors occasionally appeared as well. When I saw red lighting in Maggie’s observatory, the tones remained clean and vivid, with no bleeding or noise. All of the colors held up well and I they consistently looked appropriately accurate. Black levels were similarly deep and dense, and shadow detail appeared nicely defined; the low-light scenes were appropriately heavy but never excessively thick. Ultimately, this was a fine picture that only suffered a little from some print concerns.

Even better were the soundtracks of Chain Reaction. This DVD offered both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes, and although both seemed good, the DTS track was the clear winner. In fact, the DTS edition was so good that I almost gave the DD mix a lower rating than it deserved; that track worked well on its own but when compared directly to the DTS, it seemed weaker than it really was.

Both soundtracks offered broad and engaging soundfields. All five channels got a fine workout throughout CR, as the different speakers provided a wealth of unique information. Whether in big action scenes like chase sequences and the nuclear explosion - which made for a fine demo moment - or quieter atmospheric sequences, the mix was very active but also nicely realistic. It didn’t seem like an overtly showy track that tossed in sounds just to amp up the proceedings; instead, the audio worked well to keep us involved in the feature.

Audio quality was also excellent. Dialogue seemed warm and natural and showed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music got buried slightly under the rest of the mix, but I thought the score appeared clear and bright, with positive dynamics and presence. Effects were very crisp and detailed, and they showed no distortion or flaws. In addition, those elements could boast some terrific bass at times. On occasion I was afraid the walls were going to crack due to the deep low-end heard during the movie; it could be a rather phenomenal presentation.

As I mentioned earlier, although both tracks worked well, the DTS mix was the easy winner. While the Dolby version showed good levels of five-channel activity, the DTS one melded them together with greater clarity and spaciousness. The elements seemed to blend more cleanly and they created a neater auditory environment. In addition, the bass appeared tighter and deeper during the DTS mix. The Dolby’s low-end could rock my house as well, but it was only during the DTS track that I really started to fear for the foundation. One trip through the failed experiment early in the film will show what I mean, and if that doesn’t work for you, give the nuclear explosion a blast.

The DTS mix was so strong that I nearly awarded it an elusive “A+”. I couldn’t quite go that far, but it was still a terrific auditory experience. With other excellent soundtracks such as Twister, Independence Day, and The Rock, 1996 was a terrific year for movie audio, and Chain Reaction matched up with the competition.

Less exciting were this DVD’s extras. All we find are some promotional materials. The disc includes the theatrical trailer for Chain Reaction and two TV spots as well. In addition, we get promos for other films in the “Fox Flix” area. There you’ll discover ads for Point Break, Big Trouble In Little China, and Unlawful Entry.

Better supplements would have made this a more compelling package, for Chain Reaction is not terribly successful as a movie. Oh, it has some exciting moments, but the Fugitive-rehash plot ultimately makes it tiresome, and the film peters out well before it ends. Although it includes skimpy extras, the DVD offers very good picture plus stellar sound, especially if you have DTS capabilities. Ultimately, Keanu Reeves fans may want to give Chain Reaction a look, but those with a penchant for strong action flicks will probably prefer to check out something else.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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