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‘Outbreak’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 10, 1995

Dustin Hoffman heads a crack crew of bug-busters in "Outbreak," a highly infectious disease movie that mutates into a rip-snorting techno-thriller complete with chopper chases and explosions. And you thought heroes fought off microscopic organisms only in laboratories.

"Outbreak" is an absolute hoot thanks primarily to director Wolfgang Petersen's rabid pacing and the great care he brings to setting up the story and its probability. Never mind that in the race to beat Ridley Scott's "Hot Zone" to the screen, scenarists Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool relied on cliches and left plenty of plot holes. But they have injected the dry, potentially bewildering material with humor and a sense of urgency.

The film opens with a crackling flashback in Zaire, where a group of mercenaries has been infected by a lethal and virulent new disease. A team of American military medicos takes a couple of blood samples, reassures the oozing men that they're in good hands, then bombs the jungle encampment to eradicate the victims and the spread of the disease.

Satisfied that the surgical strike has contained the "Motaba" bug, the officers involved cover up the incident. When Motaba strikes another village three decades later, Col. Sam Daniels (Hoffman) of USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases) is sent to investigate.

Though the disease, which liquefies human tissue, is spread by physical contact and the village is remote, Daniels urges his superior, Gen. Ford (Morgan Freeman), to warn other health professionals. The general adamantly refuses, so Daniels asks his gorgeous ex-wife (Rene Russo), an expert with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), to spread the word. Good thing too.

Just as the dinosaurs escaped from "Jurassic Park," Motaba soon makes its way out of the rain forest and, in a credible series of incidents, travels inside its monkey host to present-day California. The adorable little critter is eventually released into the woods outside San Francisco, but not before he's spit on one man and bitten another.

A bit of one victim's blood splatters on a laboratory technician, who sneezes in a movie theater. The camera -- adroitly aimed by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus -- follows the flying sputum as it enters the nasal passages or falls upon the popcorn of other patrons. Within days the entire town of Cedar Creek, Calif., is under attack by Motaba, and quarantined by troops under the command of Gen. McClintock (Donald Sutherland), who knows more about Motaba than anyone realizes.

McClintock orders Daniels off the case, but the little colonel is not so easily deterred. He's what you might call a germicidal maniac: He never met a bug he didn't want to zap. So he disregards his orders, commandeers a plane and flies with his SWAT team -- the acerbic Casey (Kevin Spacey) and the sly Salt (Cuba Gooding Jr.) -- to confront the enemy.

The film kicks into high gear and Daniels abandons his white jacket for the mantle of action hero. With the help of Maj. Salt, a wise-cracking virologist and the Luke Skywalker of helicopter pilots, Daniels commandeers a chopper. And among other things, they outwit two fighter choppers and face down an oncoming bomber.

Though something of a half-pint, Hoffman brings a Schwarzeneggerian credibility to the action role. And when it comes to preventing the spread of microbes, he is as tenacious as a TV commercial housewife concerned over the cleanliness of her bathroom bowl. Russo brings warmth and intelligence to the role of Daniels's estranged wife, a character designed to offset the cold of the laboratory setting and action hardware. Gooding and Spacey are also nicely cast as Hoffman's comic sidekicks.

Based on news reports of flesh-eating microbes and bestsellers about impehere the heck did I put that Pine-Sol? Outbreak, at area theaters, is rated R. nding plague, "Outbreak" wants to be a cautionary tale, but it's more like a B-movie about

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