“Virtuosity” is a sleek, brutal techno-thriller that generates nonstop action, but for at least some of us the fun is spoiled by its numbing body count and murky story line. On the other hand, it boasts the kind of elaborate special effects and spectacular production values that can still come only from Hollywood.
For all its daunting technology and intricate visuals, the film is basically a simple struggle between good and evil and familiar cautionary tale about the dangers of the misuse of technology. “Virtuosity” is set in 1999 Los Angeles, where racism, xenophobia and violence are worse than ever. This vision is expressed with confident panache by a vast team of filmmakers headed by producer Howard W. Koch Jr., director Brett Leonard and writer Eric Bernt.
Forget all the technical stuff, however, for the film’s real inspiration is in casting Denzel Washington as its star. He brings a crucial humanity to the carnage--and, in turn, gets to muscle most effectively into Arnold and Sly superman territory, doubtless a shrewd career move for a prestige actor. Washington plays Parker Barnes, an LAPD officer serving a long sentence for killing a political terrorist who murdered Barnes’ wife and daughter.
Now he’s become a guinea pig at the government’s Law Enforcement Technological Advancement Center, run by Louise Fletcher in her icy Nurse Ratched mode. He’s subjected to its Virtual Reality Criminal Investigation Simulator, heralded as the ultimate police training device, in which he’s pitted against the computer-generated Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe), who embodies mankind’s worst traits.
Indeed, when Sid inevitably escapes from cyberspace to become an android rampaging through the streets of L.A., we learn that a loose-cannon programmer had endowed Sid with the traits of some 200 of history’s most evil individuals, including Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler and--you guessed it--Washington’s nemesis, that deadly political terrorist. What’s there to do but to spring Washington to try to catch this man-made monster?
This Paramount production belongs to a long line of movies that tend to distract the viewer with a barrage of technical jargon and impressive gadgetry from the fact that what’s happening on the screen is really pretty elementary. What’s more, one of the film’s key points, raising the question of the role of the media in creating crazed outlaws, has been raised many times before. Yet there’s no denying that cinematographer’s Gale Tattersall’s suitably harsh metallic images are superbly realized or that Nilo Rodis’ production design--integrating intricate movie wizardry, a dark vision of the future and a gritty urban present--has remarkable and powerful aesthetic unity.
Washington has the kind of stature and star presence to hold together an often highly improbable chain of events, the most improbable of which is that Barnes’ staunch clinical psychologist sidekick (a businesslike Kelly Lynch) would leave her 9-year-old daughter unguarded while she accompanies Washington in the pursuit of Sid.
Crowe’s boyish looks set off Sid’s maniacal glee effectively in a portrayal radically different from the actor’s recent role as a diffident gay in the Australian film “The Sum of Us.” “Virtuosity” doesn’t always compute, but like last summer’s “Speed,” it is far more fully realized cinematically than many less commercial, more serious pictures.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong futuristic violence, some brutal beatings and some language. Times guidelines: The film is too savage for preteens.
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Denzel Washington: Parker Barnes
Kelly Lynch: Madison Carter
Russell Crowe: Sid 6.7
Louise Fletcher: Elizabeth Deane
A Paramount Pictures presentation. Director Brett Leonard. Producer Gary Lucchesi. Executive producer Howard W. Koch Jr. Screenplay by Eric Bernt. Cinematographer Gale Tattersall. Special visual effects by L2 Communications. Editors B.J. Sears and Rob Korbin. Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Music Christopher Young. Production designer Nilo Rodis. Art director Richard Yanez-Toyon. Set decorator Jay Hart. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.