Outbreak (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Apparently, it isn't enough for a plague to be the villain. A microscopic entity, "one billionth [human] size" with the potential of wiping out the population of the United States in 48 hours, doesn't represent a sufficient threat. Therefore, Outbreak has decided to give us a nasty, power-mad U.S. army general who is more concerned with pursuing his own agenda than saving a couple thousand citizens in the small California community of Cedar Creek.

The problem with Outbreak is that extraneous plot elements like Donald Sutherland's general, a couple of aerial chases, and an unbelievably contrived search for a monkey, keep getting in the way of a chilling horror story. What would happen if a contagious, lethal virus with no known antidote, got out of control? How would the citizens, doctors, patients, and government deal with the situation? In this film, we're given tantalizing glimpses of that scenario, but the need to interject action and adventure for a momentary thrill robs Outbreak of dramatic power.

Yes, this movie is an entertaining and sometimes wildly-exhilarating ride. The helicopter chase sequence is thrilling -- only it doesn't seem to belong here. And, when the movie is over, any more-than-cursory consideration of the plot reveals gaps that even sizable doses of coincidence and contrivance can't completely fill. Outbreak is not one of those pictures that improves in retrospect.

The story opens with a fast-paced, dazzling display of firepower as an entire village is annihilated in Zaire's Motaba River Valley. Ordered by two army types (Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman), this is deemed the only viable "cure" for a rampant plague. Many -- both the sick and the healthy -- die, but the virus is kept from spreading, at least for the better part of three decades. But in 1995, it shows up again, only this time it's not restricted to Africa. Brought across the Atlantic by an infected monkey, the Motaba infection mutates into a more deadly strain, and begins to attack the American public.

A small group of dedicated professionals are the first -- and perhaps only -- line of defense against the virus. These include Col. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman); his ex-wife, Robby (Renee Russo); his best friend, Casey (Kevin Spacey); and the newcomer to the team, Maj. Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Defying direct orders from Freeman's General Ford to stop the investigation, Sam uses all the resources at his disposal to win the battle against his microscopic foe before one of his loved ones is stricken.

As directed by accomplished film maker Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire, Das Boot), Outbreak is a beautifully photographed, competently-acted piece. Dustin Hoffman is carefully contained as Daniels, never straying over the top. Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a stable, if sometimes cliched performance, as the "sidekick." Freeman and Russo are solid in supporting roles. Only Sutherland, sporting an American accent, can't avoid chewing on the scenery. His portrayal, like his character, would be more at home in Dr. Strangelove than here, and it's a sore spot that the movie never quite recovers from.

Most viewers are likely to enjoy Outbreak, especially coming as it does in the midst of a veritable wasteland of general release pictures. It's an escapist thriller with good guys to root for and bad guys to hiss at. Yet the source of lamentation is not what's on screen, but what could have been there. No one likes to be teased, but that's exactly what this movie does to us, with predictably frustrating results. Fluff -- especially the variety with a lot of flashes and bangs -- often makes for perfect light entertainment, except when, as in the case of Outbreak, it starts out with the promise of so much more... a promise that is never fulfilled on a higher-than-superficial level.

Outbreak (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 1995-03-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1