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'The Peacemaker': Right on Target

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 26, 1997

Let us now praise really cool movies.

Not great, not profound, not even defensible but . . . irreducibly cool. Say "The Terminator." Say "The Manchurian Candidate." Say "From Russia With Love." Say "Bullitt."

And say "The Peacemaker," where George Clooney's sulky Achilles plays well enough against Nicole Kidman's Perfect-Girl-With-a-4.0 persona to suggest he has a future beyond "ER." Their mission -- to save a thousand acres from a new wrinkle in the terrorist's arsenal: not a suitcase A-bomb but a backpack nuke.

Slick, gripping and largely believable, "The Peacemaker" is above all a thoroughly professional product even as it celebrates professionalism at the highest rank of the national security pyramid. It does an energetic job convincing us we are among high-level intelligence analysts, sublimely skilled professional soldiers and people who actually know what happens when you turn on a computer. Clooney plays Green Beret Col. Tom Devoe, whobrilliant but inexperienced physicist Julia Kelly (Kidman) must track down a missing nuclear warhead before it wastes those thousand acres, which happen to be in Manhattan.

I like the smallness of the conceit. They're not "saving the world" or even the United States. They're not even saving the city, only a couple of its better delis and coffee shops, including the one where Jerry, Elaine and George hang out. The weapon is one of those little bitty bomblets, part of a larger package originally designed to deploy from space from among a nesting of nine more of its brothers and do specific hard-target damage. It would melt, say, most of midtown and part of Queens but probably leave the Bronx intact. Long Island? No problemo. You'd be safe out there, and you'd pick up a really fine tan without having to spend much time at the beach.

What is fresh about the film is not merely the way its tension and the chemistry of its stars take it far past regulation-thriller bits like the annoying staccato chatter of a Teletype machine accompanying little announcements like "TASHKENT, 15 MAY, 0430 HRS." as they appear in a corner of the screen a letter at a time. More important, it's director Mimi Leder's endless visual invention. We have seen this stuff so many times before that it's particularly bracing to see it re-imagined.

For example, the opening sequence chronicles a rogue Russian special forces team taking down a train with a cargo of decommissioned nuclear warheads aboard. Leder is full of bold strokes -- she gives her commandos infrared goggles that (inaccurately) glow red in the dark; the commandos look like mole people from hell, not soldiers. A second later, when they enter a car full of snoozing guards, we know they're about to open fire with silenced weapons. But she cuts to the outside and instead of showing countless more deaths (to add to the 4,588,347 I have seen in my career), she unleashes a sudden bristle of laser beams from the guns' sighting devices, and the optical latticework speaks suggestively of penetration. Really cool.

The plot is obvious in big things but clever in small. Tom Clancy could have thought it up while checking the oil on his Mercedes, but some of its subtleties would be beyond his crude reach. One is the way it keeps redefining itself, taking us into different milieus and different sorts of action dynamics. At first it appears to be a conventional European spy thriller, with Clooney and Kidman going undercover in Old Vienna in search of a bill of lading for a rented truck by which nuclear weapons might be transported; they end up in a car chase that's more of a demolition derby. Then "The Peacemaker" transforms itself into a straight-up raid movie as Clooney, now swaggering around in camo fatigues under his easy-to-buy-hard-to-earn green hat and packing a shorty M-16, leads a helicopter assault in Russian territory, where, evading the SAMs sent its way, his team intercepts that self-same truckload of warheads and dispatches a few bad guys in spectacular ways. But then they get the bad news: One of the bombs is still missing.

That brings another subplot into play, where a Serbian politician has been planning some mysterious act of vengeance against the West. Which leads to a third very powerful act, this time a panic-in-the-city orchestration where Clooney, Kidman, their team and all of the FBI agents in the world attempt to stop the man with the plutonium backpack.

The big news on Leder, of course, is that she's woman, hear her roar. Those who care to make something of this must acknowledge that she delivers a movie with hard edges, brilliant narrative drive and some gut-rending violence as well as any of the guys. But the movie has a few grace notes that may or may not be ascribed to her gender. One is a sense of grief.

In this kind of movie, the boy directors normally slay extras and character actors by the tens of thousands without giving it a second thought. Their only concern is the ammo budget. (Remember "Heat"? After a huge gunfight in which at least five cops are killed, the squad gets back to work that afternoon without registering the faintest tremor of loss.) But twice Leder stops the movie to render moments of keening pain when various --

Oh, look out, here comes . . . one of those damned announcements:

dit-dit-dit . . . WASHINGTON POST STYLE DEPARTMENT, 25 SEPT., 1505 HRS.

-- characters are killed. That brings a sense of realism to the film, for in real life the death of a friend or colleague has enormous corollary impact.

Another grace note is a sense of moral complexity. Her villains aren't slobbering psychopaths spouting Islamic jargon and crossing their eyes while they spray saliva on the lens of the camera, but rather men broken by immense grief and stumbling toward what they believe is the path of righteousness.

Finally, Leder works very well with the actors. (She knows Clooney, of course, because they've worked together on "ER.") She handles the Kelly-Devoe relationship nicely: It stays professional but they relate to each other in meaningful ways and we can subtly feel each influencing the other's personality and feel their chemistry heating up along with the plot.

And as for that title, I have no idea what it means either.

The Peacemaker is rated R for graphic violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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