Wit & Missiles There's action aplenty in 'The Peacemaker,' but its lead characters, played by George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, haven't forgotten how to think.


The threat of nuclear annihilation is one thing. But "The Peacemaker," the new action film starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, comes rolling into theaters today with concerns far weightier than that in tow.

Not only is it the long-awaited first feature film from DreamWorks SKG, the upstart culture conglomerate founded two years ago by the redoubtable (and in some circles reviled) Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, but the director of this taut military thriller is -- gasp! -- a woman.

So let's defuse those two issues immediately:

1) "The Peacemaker" is worth the wait.

2) Director Mimi Leder proves herself more than equal to the task of keeping a technical, action-oriented vehicle on a lively course, and not sacrificing an ounce of intelligence in the bargain.

Based on an article written by investigative journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, "The Peacemaker" unfolds in the post-Cold War nuclear landscape of Eastern Europe, at a time when "Baywatch" has supplanted Bolshevism as the cultural currency of the realm, and bombs are no longer the purview of the state but of the gray areas where governments, criminals and free marketeers intersect.

When a trainload of nuclear missiles disappears in Russia's Ural mountains, it's up to Julia Kelly (Kidman), head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, to figure out who the culprits are; when she asks for a military liaison who "doesn't mind taking orders from a woman" she gets Lt. Col. Tom Devoe (Clooney), a Special Forces intelligence officer with a cocky attitude, a smart mouth and a working knowledge of post-Soviet players.

Kelly and Devoe differ in their opinions of who's behind the theft -- Kelly says terrorists, Devoe thinks Russian mafia -- but they gamely work together on an international chase that eventually will lead them back home, to a suspect who confirms both their theories.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. But what's remarkable about "The Peacemaker" is that, at a time when the action-adventure has been kidnapped by projectile hyperbole and special-effects wizards, the filmmakers have returned simply to spinning a good yarn with some class.

This starts with the casting: Clooney, who has raised the sexy wince and expressive head-tilt to an art form, cuts a suave, funny figure as the slightly morally corrupt Green Beret (yet more comparisons to Cary Grant are inevitable and deserved). Kidman, who proved in "To Die For" what an underrated actress she is, again captures the cadences of a contemporary American woman, and again reveals that, with the right material, she is capable of great range and awareness.

But the true star of "The Peacemaker" is director Leder herself. One characteristic of directors who have been doing their job for a long time is that the camera eventually becomes almost an organic extension of their body, moving with the same intuitive rhythms and even animal grace. John Woo is such a director, and so is Robert Rodriguez.

Unlike those filmmakers, Leder cut her teeth in television, where she endowed prime-time dramas like "China Beach" and "ER" with a startling cinematic grace. With "The Peacemaker," Leder finally has been given a larger palette, and she takes flight, engaging her camera in a dance of stately figure-eights and arabesques.

Nowhere is the beauty and subtlety of her style more evident than in the opening sequence, a tensile ballet between two trains that Leder films with kineticism, assurance and ingenuity.

With the director's keen eye and steady hand, the solid performances of Clooney and Kidman (bolstered by a good supporting cast of unknown Russian, Romanian and Croatian actors), Michael Schiffer's smart screenplay adaptation and a stirring, Wagner-inflected musical score from composer Hans Zimmer, "The Peacemaker" becomes something of an oxymoron: the thinking person's popcorn movie.

Which is not to suggest that all the fun has been taken out: There are plenty of white-knucklers (a deadly game of bumper cars in a Vienna square, some derring-do atop a Russian bridge, a sniper trying to miss an innocent child on a crowded street) that Leder executes with bracing, deliberate speed.

But she distinguishes herself in making sure that the film's every act of violence entails some visible emotional fallout. Her taste and technical prowess aside, Leder has delivered that rare action picture in which death and destruction are part of the drill, but their meaning reverberates even after their adrenal impact has faded.

'The Peacemaker'

Starring George Clooney, Nicole Kidman

Directed by Mimi Leder

Released by Dreamworks Pictures

Rated R (strong violence and some language)

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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