Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 10, 2015)
Call it a case of the “sophomore slump” - sort of. Okay, 1993’s The Fugitive wasn’t director Andrew Davis’s first film. Heck, it wasn’t even his initial success, as 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 even Davis’s 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, Reaction 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 Reaction 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 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 behind the sabotage. 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) hit the road as they attempt to keep one step ahead of various parties and also stay alive.
Essentially, Reaction gives us 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 seen in Reaction would have.
Unfortunately, the broader scope of the technology in Reaction comes to be a bad thing, as it makes some of the film’s characters look naïve 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 - to simply eradicate them overnight would likely toss the world into a tizzy.
However, our protagonists take the insanely optimistic view that “the people can handle it”. Sure, the people are ready – who wouldn’t be darned hyped for some free fuel?
But that’s not the point. 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, so the shift from oil to water as fuel would be equally calamitous.
Unfortunately, Chain Reaction prefers to gloss over things in a simple manner as it creates a routine tale of good and evil. The villains in The Fugitive were more complex and realistic, while those of Reaction 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 with Reeves. Maybe Davis thought The Fugitive suffered because its protagonist didn’t go after any babes and this was an attempt to rectify that. Unfortunately, Weisz has little to do in the film other than complicate matters for Reeves; 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 Reaction, 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 - Reeves seems fine in the role, as he delivers the part’s necessities. Since that means he has to do little more than run from people and survive, the demands remain minor, and he does okay.
Reeves also has to ride a motorbike, which leads to one of the film’s silliest moments. In an apparent attempt to outdo the famous train wreck scene from The Fugitive, during Reaction Reeves 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.
If Chain Reaction came with more excitement – even of the idiotic stripe – I’d probably enjoy it more. Unfortunately, it mostly seems like a plodding rehash of The Fugitive that lacks much zest.