By Roger Ebert
Universal Press Syndicate
Los Angeles, 1999. A city of zombies in gray business suits who walk unseeing in the streets.
Only two people seem aware of their surroundings. One of them is Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington), who moves easily through the crowds in search of something. His quest leads to a Japanese restaurant, where there is a bloody struggle with a bad guy who has taken hostages. There is a shootout, which does not develop quite as it should.
We learn that this has all been a computer game, as we suspected, because some of the shots of the sky fluttered as if the screen were repainting itself. Back in the real world, Barnes is revealed as a former cop, now in prison, with a computer-controlled artificial arm. The game is explained as virtual reality training for police to help them cope with sudden emergencies.
In Virtuosity, Barnes finds himself in familiar fictional territory: This is yet another retread of the familiar formula in which the rogue cop is reactivated because he is the only person who can deal with the brilliant and dangerous villain. But here the movie turns up a new twist. The bad guy in Virtuosity is not a human being, but a computer program named Sid 6.7, which plays the villain in the VR simulations.
Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe) is some program. Into his cybermemory have been pumped the personalities of 200 criminals, including Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy -- and the man who killed Barnes' wife and children. Sid is so intelligent he knows how to tap into his many personalities to torment his enemies, and he taunts Barnes with memories of his family.
Sid takes physical shape as a mandroid, escapes from the lab and becomes a serial killer at large -- 200 serial killers at large. There are two catches. One is that Sid 6.7, programmed with artificial intelligence, can now grow on his own, rewriting and improving his own programs. The other is that Sid is interactive down to the tiniest electron in his cybersoul. He is not happy unless he's involved in a battle with his antagonists.
For Barnes, who for a cop is unusually knowledgeable about computer programming, this is the ultimate challenge, and Virtuosity is clever in the ways it finds to morph the situation.
Virtuosity is an example of a struggle that goes on in Hollywood between formula and invention. The movie is filled with bright ideas and fresh thinking, but the underlying story is as old as the hills, right down to a final confrontation on catwalks. What redeems Virtuosity a little is that even at the end, even in the midst of the action cliches, it still finds surprises in the paradox of a villain who is also a program.
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