Movie review, 'The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course'

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"The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course" oscillates between pragmatist genius and B-movie mediocrity.Steve Irwin, the hyper Aussie star of cable TV's "The Crocodile Hunter," stars as himself, and essentially re-creates his croc-wrestling television show. He and his American wife, Terri, race around the Outback manhandling and rescuing dangerous critters in service of the Australia Zoo.

Because Irwin makes physical contact with only one person other than his wife in the film, "Collision Course" would be an ironic title were it not for the audible smacking together of the movie's disparate, parallel parts.

When a U.S. spy satellite sputters, then self-destructs in outer space, its softball size "black box" hurdles toward Australia and is swallowed by a Buick-sized croc. Hapless U.S. agents are dispatched to find the box, the contents of which could upset the balance of world power.

Conceived, produced and directed by Irwin's TV producer John Stainton, the movie carries the mark of someone who knows just how hokey a proposition "Collision Course" is. Smart enough to play to Irwin's strengths, Stainton positions his star to do what he does best: wrangle crocs, snakes and spiders while talking directly to the camera. He pretty much keeps Irwin out of the way of international intrigue, and we get what looks like two separate movies cleverly edited together.

The only time he engages with the world outside his animal kingdom is during a truck-top fistfight with an U.S. agent, whom he mistakes for a poacher. Even this is treated with a detached eye, as Irwin continues to narrate the conflict as if his adversary were just another Aussie beast.

With an almost surrealist sensibility, Irwin remains in TVland, complete with an invisible camera crew, addressing his audience past the Fourth Wall like this was all perfectly, unflinchingly normal.

In some ways, Irwin is environmental twin of MTV's Tom Green, whose own leap to the big screen resulted in a career-killing thud in "Freddy Got Fingered." What Irwin and his director understand, and what Green did not, is that when you take a TV personality out of his element, he flops around like a fish out of water. Whereas Green tried to squeeze his gonzo prankster schtick into the confines of a screenplay, thus zapping it of any juice, Irwin incorporates his animal wrangling into the film. Sure, they're staged for the movie, integrating real locations with zoo swamps (only the plastic-edged riverbanks give this away), but croc reactions can't be scripted. Irwin even ends up with a bloody knee during his first capture.

He's a bit more gleeful in picking apart animal poo, perhaps a nod to his fecal humor-obsessed teen crowd, but otherwise he's the Steve everyone knows, love him or hate him. He still educates while entertaining, calls his wife "mate" and shouts "crikey!" for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately, Irwin and his director never come up with an adequate reason why we should pay money for what we can get on television for free. None of his supporting characters is compelling or vaguely funny, and lifting the satellite plot out of the film wouldn't detract from the most exciting elements of the film: Irwin himself interacting with an environment that bites back."

2 stars
"The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course"
Directed by John Stainton; screenplay by Holly Goldberg Sloan; photographed by David Burr; edited by Suresh Ayyar and Bob Blasall; production design by Jon Dowding; produced by Arnold Rifkin, Judi Bailey and John Stainton. A ThinkFilm release; opens Friday, July 12. Rated PG for action violence/peril and mild language.
Himself--Steve Irwin
Herself--Terri Irwin
Brozzie Drewitt--Magda Szubanksi
Sam Flynn--David Wenham
Agent Bob Wheeler--Lachy Hulme Agent Vaughan Archer--Kenneth Ransom

Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.

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