"Outbreak" is fast on its feet and simple in its head.
Underneath the slick manipulations of director Wolfgang ("In the Line of Fire") Petersen and extremely convincing performances by Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, you'll sense the archetypal structure from the paranoid '50s -- the old Invasion from Outer Space standard.
But in "War of the Worlds" it was the germs that killed the invaders. In "Outbreak" the germs are the invaders -- only, to give it a further spin into paranoia, they're not from Mars but from Africa, as transmitted by a monkey.
Hoffman plays a smart, dedicated but (of course) maverick Army epidemiologist, who flies around the world with his crack team to study and contain viral outbreaks. They walk into a hot zone in space suits, talk through radios, and wage bug warfare at its most intense level. The usual area of operations is Africa; but the bad news from Cedar Creek, Calif., unflaps even Hoffman's unflappability.
In that small town, a fever so virulent has sprung up that it reduces people to corpses in 24 hours. It's a stroke of genius and vivid cynicism that the scriptwriters have chosen to make facial lesions one symptom of the bug. This turns the cadavers into war victims and Cedar Creek into downtown Bosnia.
His superiors mysteriously wish to keep Hoffman and his team away from the site, but that maverick streak, plus the fact that his ex-wife Rene Russo (also an epidemiologist) is leading the civilian Center for Contagious Diseases team in Cedar City, drives him to go anyway. Arriving illegally, he begins assembling clues.
These lead to a monkey brought back from Africa, stolen from an animal holding center, deposited in Cedar Creek and then let go in some nearby woods. One of the more unsettling notes the film sounds vibrates with implicit AIDS paranoia: African monkeys, unwilling transmitters, a Patient Zero (pet smuggler Patrick Dempsey) and a callous government response.
Complications mount as swiftly as corpses. The military declares the town a disaster area and rings it with airborne troops, under the eventual command of epicene, pink-faced Donald Sutherland, who carries on as if he has been contaminated by the virus of bad acting.
Meanwhile, the virus mutates into a second, more dangerous, strain, which can be transmitted like the flu. Plans are made to cauterize the area by dropping the most powerful non-nuclear munition in the arsenal, a gasoline vapor bomb capable of scorching a square mile of Earth and everything on it.
How do we know? Well, we've seen it in action. The dense and labyrinthine plot twists about to reveal a murky connection to a similar outbreak in Africa in 1967, where a U.S. biological warfare team -- headed by Hoffman's present supervisors, Freeman and Sutherland -- took blood samples from the afflicted, then had such a weapon detonated as a form of napalm antiseptic. Though it's unspecified, the implication is that the men used the blood sample to help manufacture the virus in case of biological warfare.
Though it grips tightly, the movie is longer on hubbub than on sense. Like some liberal's darkest nightmare, it gathers extreme energy from the imagery of military occupation of the cutest li'l American small town you ever saw, complete to the obligatory white church steeple in the center. Paratroopers in gas masks with M-16s patrol the streets, bullying a frightened populace into acquiescence; a Huey turns a mini-gun loose on a pickup truck full of escapees. Sutherland snarls about "sentimentalism," meaning concern for the victims. The only note of sanity is sounded by an unbilled J. T. Walsh in a rare appearance as a good guy, a compassionate and worried presidential adviser.
It's also significant that none of the big suspense set-pieces has anything to do with the situation of the film; they're arbitrary and feel grafted onto the plot. The silliest of these, alas, encompasses the film's climax. Hoffman and his assistant (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who just happens to be a crack helicopter pilot as well as a crack epidemiologist, steal a Light Observation Helicopter and flit about the California countryside in search of miracles, which turn up with absurd ease in the movie's last 10 minutes.
The movie comes to turn on spectacles of aviation -- a helicopter dogfight over a California forest and, finally, a game of airborne chicken in which Hoffman and Gooding try to face down the C-130 hauling Armageddon toward Cedar Creek.
The film would have been far more impressive had the premise of the plot been the focus of the drama: The struggle of the team to find an antidote for a terrible disease. This is but an afterthought in "Outbreak," which is far more absorbed with choppers than with microbes, and with bogus conspiracies than with crisis epidemiology. In the end, you want to say to it: Take two aspirin and lie down. You'll get over it in the morning.
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Rated R (violent deaths)