2 stars (out of four)
Wolfgang Petersen deals in earth, air and fire, but at heart he is a water-based director. He made "Das Boot." He marshaled "The Perfect Storm," released in his native Germany as "Der Sturm." And now he has made a film about das Boot und der Sturm, otherwise known as "Poseidon."
It is a noisy, occasionally exciting remake of the 1972 trash classic "The Poseidon Adventure," which told a tale of an ocean liner, an enormous wall of water, their brief but intense relationship and the soggy aftermath. The old Irwin Allen-produced number wasn't good, exactly, yet millions have carried a torch for it well out of their adolescence.
Pick your reason. Is it Gene Hackman's turtlenecked, touchy-feely Action Man of God? Or the twerpy kid with the big hair and all the answers? Perhaps it's Leslie Nielsen, pre-"Airplane," staring down that Enormous Wall of Water. Or director Ronald Neame's relentlessly rump-centric focus on Stella Stevens and Pamela Sue Martin. Or Shelley Winters, shvitzing and kibitzing and swimming, swimming, swimming; or Ernest Borgnine, never an underplayer, screaming "Linda! Linda! LINDA!" like he's getting paid by the LINDA!
The list is long, and the '72 version had the earnestness, the Sturm and the Drang of a camp hoot. Petersen's version is louder and harsher -- this version delivers far more electrocutions, for example. But really, we've sailed these waters before. "Poseidon" has been reimagined, if that's the word for it, in an impersonal, Palm Piloted manner, though not without its share of unintended laughs. As the ex-mayor of New York City who wears the sort of ostentatious metrosexual wristwatch that spells probable doom for its owner, Kurt Russell keeps getting into ill-timed family quarrels with his daughter, played by Emmy Rossum. At these junctures, accompanied by flames and rising water and puzzled looks from the co-stars, an audience's ill will is likely to turn into a rogue wave of derision.
Russell receives top billing but in this teen-demographically obsessed version of the story, the Man of Action must be a Young Man of Action, played by Josh Lucas. (Red Buttons couldn't get cast in the "Poseidon" remake if the script contained a character named "Red Buttons.") Lucas, he of the photogenic stubble and albino choppers, is supposed to be a hotshot gambler, though from the way he tackles each new death-defying feat with inhuman courage -- at one point, he dives headlong into a burning ring of fire, and where's Johnny Cash when you need him? -- Lucas appears to be auditioning for an action franchise to be named later.
Ditching the Paul Gallico novel's character roster, which was followed pretty closely by the '72 version, screenwriter Mark Protosevich does not worry about fleshing out the so-called "human interest" angles in those destined to survive. Predisaster, the gambler comes on to the mom (Jacinda Barrett) of the perpetually imperiled preteen (Jimmy Bennett) in roughly the same time it takes to bring the lonelyhearts gay bachelor (Richard Dreyfuss) to the brink of suicide.
Once the wave hits, the "Titanic"-inspired special effects flood the screen and the bodies start flying. All in all I preferred the waves, all sizes, in "The Perfect Storm." In "Poseidon" one wave's all you get and, like the vessel itself, it may be large but cinematically it is nothing special.
Twice, director Petersen gets down to old-fashioned suspense business and the movie feels like a real movie. The director works best in tight quarters. In one of the effective set pieces, Lucas and his minions cross a makeshift bridge set up in an elevator shaft. In another, the survivors must negotiate an air vent threatened by rising waters.
These sequences do the job; they hold you. Too much of the time the new "Poseidon" is the old one minus the exposition, minus Red Buttons, minus the "LINDA!!!"s and with twice as much generic action.
Also: What's with the lily-white survivor pool? You expect Andre Braugher, who plays the Captain, to die -- he's the one who defies the Young Man of Action and stays behind in the wrong part of the upside-down ship. (Sad to see Braugher, once upon a time the best actor on TV in his "Homicide" heyday, stuck in a functional role.) But by the end all the supporting players of color have been eliminated, leaving an ensemble that makes the cast of "Friends" look diverse.
Small favors: At least "Poseidon" takes care to dispatch the Black Eyed Peas' Stacy Ferguson who, as the shipboard entertainer, sings what may be the worst song ever written, reprised over the end credits. Its lyrics include the line: "I will be a journey/And you will be my road." I never thought I'd say it, but: Bring back "The Morning After"!
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Mark Protosevich, based on the novel by Paul Gallico; cinematography by John Seale; edited by Peter Honess; production design by William Sandell; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Petersen, Duncan Henderson, Mike Fleiss and Akiva Goldsman. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril).
Robert Ramsey - Kurt Russell
Dylan Johns - Josh Lucas
Richard Nelson - Richard Dreyfuss
Jennifer Ramsey - Emmy Rossum
Elena - Mia Maestro