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[1995. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman. Warner Bros. 125 mins]

The scene is intense as some of the United States' most talented virologists are huddled in the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases Level 4 laboratory trying to figure out the cause of a deadly virus devastating Cedar Creek, California.

This outbreak-dubbed the "Mataba virus" is moving energetically. It's threatening to take out the whole country within a matter of days. The virus' massive blood clots, vicious black vomit, and unsightly facial lesions make cholera seem like child's play.

With an intently grim face, Dr. Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) leans towards his sophisticated display monitor, and with a knowing smile, spots his opponent. It's a germ that looks alot like a misplaced ampersand.

That's it. The American science fiction film has degenerated into a killer ampersand.

What happened to the days when radioactive giant ants came crawling out of the ground after nuclear blasts in the desert? Or man-eating giant triffids slithered around scarfing on human flesh? Or, for that matter, even rampaging giant rabbits roamed the range...making for an odd, if  not exactly bone-chilling , night at the drive-in movies?

We're past those innocent days now. And so is Dustin Hoffman.

Taking a cue from Robert Wise's superd The Andromeda Strain and Stephen King's not-so-admirable The Stand, Wolfgang Petersen is on the hunt for the great Mataba germ...and he's only got Hoffman between us and Armageddon.

Outbreak starts plausibly and promisingly enough with an unexplained viral mutation in the Mataba region of Equatorial Africa some twenty years ago. Then through an interesting quirk of movieland fate-presumably as an analog to the AIDS epidemic-one cuddly research monkey infects an underhanded laboratory caretaker. This chance event sets into motion a chain-reaction that threatens the existence of the world's most powerful nation.

Fortunately, Hoffman has taken a little time off serious acting in order to fill in for Sly, Arnie, Jean-Claude, Mr. Clean, or whoever else should rightly be single-handedly taking out killer molecules.

But scientific knowledge is not nearly enough. Before the dreaded outbreak is contained, Hoffman;s Dr. Daniels has to commandeer a military helicopter from Cedar Creek (apparently without refueling across the entire Pacific seaboard) to find this menacing monkey before it hits the big-time in L.A. He must then fight off a couple of attack helicopters trying to slow his progress before he can synthesize a life-saving vaccine. All this trauma only to have to face down a top secret bomber whose atomic warhead is meant to silence the infected town forever. And to prove that virologists are also nice guys, Daniels even manages to reconcile with his estranged wife (Reno Russo) on what he thinks is her deathbed in what spare time he has from saving the world.

This is a lot to ask of anyone. Especially since Daniels' only got a couple of hours to get the job done before the killer germ really gets out of hand. Then again, no one ever said being a scientist was a pretty job.

Nor can it be said that Outbreak is much of a movie after the first couple of remotely plausible cinematic leaps of faith. But at least Morgan Freeman's duplicitous general has a suitably vacant look in his eyes as if he knows he's covering the rent for the next couple of years and Russo's just doing what a working girl has to do to keep ends together.

Not so Hoffman. Once one of America's finest actors, it's now obvious that his career is in precipitous decline. And despite Rain Man's many faults, this film is now beginning to look like Masterpiece Theatre in contrast to the other dreadful missteps Hoffman's taken in the last few years. Dick Tracy, Hero, and Hook are all united by an almost seemingly naive attempt on his part to act up a storm in films that aren't worth his effort.

The tragedy of Outbreak is that Hoffman does a competent job of spouting lines that have no conviction. He looks aged and out of place in this pseudo-scientific disaster. Ultimately, despite his medical ranting and moral posturing, Dr. Daniels is of no consequence. Hoffman stands stiffly lecturing about the dangers of enzymes where Sly or Jean-Claude would simply chew up the scenery with an Uzi. No killer germ would dare threaten America again after a little dose of this kind of lead poisoning.

Instead, the only serious consequence of this film is Hoffman's slide in artistic integrity. Rather than a Hoffman's slide in artistic integrity. Rather than a Hoffman Outbreak, one wishes for a Hoffman break out from this tepid action flick. Because if he's not careful, those radioactive ants won't be long coming.


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