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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Net’s’ Trip Suffers From Lack of Urgency

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Since computer culture is seeming as impenetrable and imposing as ever to the layman, it’s as good a time as any for a good wallow in technophobia. Still, it’s hard to get caught up in “The Net.”

Sandra Bullock stars as Angela, a hotshot computer dweeb so ensconced in cyberculture that there’s only one person in the whole of L.A. County who can reliably identify her. (For someone who has become famous because she exudes such a natural likability, Bullock has been cast in her last two films as someone who is virtually friendless.)

About to embark on her first vacation in six years, she receives a bizarro computer program that apparently grants access to the most powerful and secret files in the country (and does so accompanied by menacing sound effects, which one would think should require a special program unto itself). She shrugs off the ramifications of such a thing, though, as blithely as she handles the suspicious death of a colleague who was coming to visit her to talk about it.

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In Mexico, she breaks the second rule of cheap literary symbolic devices: Never fall for someone whose name is an inept anagram for “devil,” particularly if your name is Angela. “Nice piece of hardware,” she flirts coquettishly with a suave fellow named Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam)--referring, of course, to his portable computer.

Big mistake--before long, Devlin and his operatives and their seemingly inexhaustible control over government computer networks threaten to take Angela permanently off-line. And the script, credited to John Brancato and Michael Ferris, soon veers off into blithering-idiot territory, stocking up on the contrivances, plot holes and flat-out mistakes with jaw-dropping regularity. This is one of those movies where everything could be cleared up with an early trip to the authorities.

Just a few examples: Angela arranges to meet with a fellow computer nerd within 30 minutes, is consequently waylaid by hours, but still bothers to show up. Even when Devlin often has no idea where she is, he conveniently seems to be within a couple of minutes of her--even after she spirits away to San Francisco. Angela enters a building in daylight; minutes later, it’s pitch-black outside. And, of course, there’s that rather implausible key plot hinge that there is no one in town that hasn’t somehow taken note of the fact that this perfectly attractive young woman exists and can vouch for her identity to the authorities.

That anyone manages to care remotely about what’s going on despite all this is a tribute to Bullock’s appeal. She remains a disarmingly winning performer, though here she’s saddled with some clunky, cliched bits of behavior: Angela recites the words she types (sort of the cyber-equivalent of moving your lips while reading).

Irwin Winkler has produced more than his fair share of terrific movies (including a number of Martin Scorsese films), but has yet to prove his mettle as director. Winkler’s previous efforts, “Guilty by Suspicion” and “Night and the City,” suffered from a dramatic inertia that returns here--he just seems incapable of bringing a sense of urgency to the material. Mark Isham’s music works overtime to try to juice the proceedings, as does Richard Halsey’s frenetic editing, which occasionally render sequences incoherent--you just take it on faith, for example, that Angela is able to escape from Devlin by riding on a carousel.

In the end, some of the problem with “The Net” may lie in the inherent nature of its subject matter. Sure, there’s a lot of running and shooting and car-crashing and other sundry thriller staples, but ultimately, a lot of the ostensibly most suspenseful scenes depend on Angela’s typing abilities--and those of you who have ever manned a keyboard are aware just how riveting a pastime typing can be.

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* MPAA-rating: PG-13, for violence, some sexuality and brief strong language. Times guidelines: The violence often occurs just off-camera; the sexuality is discreet.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘The Net’ Sandra Bullock: Angela Bennett Jeremy Northam: Jack Devlin Dennis Miller: Alan Champion A Columbia Pictures release. Director Irwin Winkler. Producers Winkler, Rob Cowan. Screenplay by John Brancato, Michael Ferris. Cinematographer Jack Green. Editor Richard Halsey. Costumes Linda Bass. Music Mark Isham. Production design Dennis Washington. Art director Tom Targownik. Sound Richard Lightstone. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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