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‘Outbreak’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 10, 1995

Sure they cast Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland in "Outbreak," but the real star of the show is a fictional, deadly virus known as "Motaba." Carried by an African monkey that has been transported to California by ship, the disease breaks out exponentially in a small town, turning hundreds of people into lesion-covered corpses within 24 hours.

But though the movie, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, displays all the initial symptoms of a promising thriller, it soon degenerates into a low-fever whodunit. While the good people (well, the good movie extras) of Cedar Creek, Calif., hack, gasp and develop embarrassing skin conditions, army doctor Hoffman and Rene Russo (his disease-specialist ex-wife) and military scientists Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey race against time to figure out the source of this disease. But the clues to the mystery lie before them like a mundane board game. There's never a sense that solving this thing is beyond them.

Eventually, Hoffman realizes everything leads to that little monkey, which is now scuttling around in the California woodlands. But he doesn't investigate far enough! The real virus lies in the word processors of screenwriters Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool. Although they've based their Matoba disease on the very real, 100 percent fatal Ebola virus of the 1980s, which came from the African rainforest, the writers merely infect us with second-rate epidemic-flick cliches.

Prepare, then, for some familiar sights: Squadrons of scientists in funny suits, army barriers, circling helicopters, loudspeakers telling townspeople to proceed to the nearest medical station, the president alerted, and the usual shadowy federal conspiracy. Prepare also for thematic wisdom: The outbreak inevitably stands for humankind's arrogant drive to destroy the planet. Basically, this modern plague is moral punishment. We're guilty of a Virus Within, which is older than the dinosaurs, mankind and Charlton Heston.

The big question is, what's Hoffman doing playing Harrison Ford? (Maybe after shooting "The River Wild," fellow serious thespian Meryl Streep assured him the water was fine.) Hoffman's perfectly respectable, but this role seems a trifle too action-oriented for the little guy. He strides around like Michael Dukakis in that protective suit, even leaping on one occasion from hovering chopper to seabound tanker.

Even in the person-to-person interaction, where he would presumably shine, Hoffman's reduced to formula antics, whether he's challenging army superiors Sutherland and Freeman to tell the Real Truth Behind All This, or bickering ex-maritally with Russo, and putting that characteristic vocal tremor into such mundane lines as "I can't believe you're taking a deadly virus and turning it into a family matter." As he and Russo interrupt their ongoing mission to defeat the virus with squabblings over who gets to keep the dogs, you come to a sobering conclusion. Saving the human race doesn't seem so important anymore.

OUTBREAK (R) -- Contains profanity and scenes of widespread panic, death and disease.

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