'Waterworld' is a splash hit It may be costly, but it's also an innovative thriller

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The most expensive epic of all time is here, and it's not a washout. It can swim! In fact, "Waterworld," which cost around $175 million to make, is good.

Kevin Costner can finally put aside all the bad press about cost overruns and just be glad he didn't have to do an accent. He's an able, compelling hero as the Mariner, a scruffy loner with a very cool boat who is just trying to survive on an Earth that has been flooded by the melting of the polar ice caps.

He's a Mad Max with gills, a "muto" who can breathe underwater. Unlike most of the people on Waterworld, who live on floating atolls or boats, he doesn't really care about dry land. That's what everyone else is looking for. He's seen the land as it was, under the ocean, where entire cities are engulfed by water. (We get to see it, too, in one of the film's most stunning sequences.)

Still, the Mariner must trade with other people, even if he doesn't like them much, so he sails to an atoll to offer some precious dirt in exchange for a few paltry goods. When the floating village comes under attack by the Smokers, brigands who use gas-powered machines instead of sails (sound like a "Mad Max" movie yet?), he reluctantly agrees to help resident Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her young charge Enola (Tina Majorino) flee.

The pursuit has just begun, because Enola has a strange, map-like tattoo on her back that might show the way to dry land. Even though no one seems to know how to read it, the Smokers, led by the Deacon (a maniacally funny Dennis Hopper), want the girl anyway.

The battles and struggles that ensue in this water-bound world are innovative and thrilling. As directed by Kevin Reynolds (who did the tiresome "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), this is a stunt-heavy, explosive movie, set to a heroic soundtrack by James Newton Howard. It's also a visually interesting film, as the characters' junky, floating homes contrast with the brilliant blue of the sea and sky. (Drinking water is precious on Waterworld, and one can see why: It never seems to rain.)

There are a few plot holes -- for instance, we never really find out how the girl got where she is. Unlikely rescues strain the film's credibility. And the Deacon's oil tanker is the butt of a cheap joke or two before the movie's over. Still, "Waterworld" is straightforward summer fun, and you don't even have to wear a swimsuit.

"Waterworld"

Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Starring Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dennis Hopper

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13 (brief nudity, language, violence)

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