Virtuosity

A Film Review by James Berardinelli

United States, 1995
U.S. Availability: wide release 8/4/95
Running Length: 1:46
MPAA Classification: R (Violence, profanity, sexual situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Kelly Lynch, William Forsythe, Stephen Spinella
Director: Brett Leonard
Producer: Gary Lucchesi
Screenplay: Eric Bernt
Cinematography: Gale Tattersall
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures

A general rule of summer film watching is to beware any August release featuring a major star. The only reason for a distributor to hold back such a production is a lack of faith in the picture's ability to succeed in the highly-competitive early season, and that's usually an indication of a poor movie. Denzel Washington is a big box office draw, and Paramount's decision to strand his latest, Virtuosity, in the August marketplace isn't a vote of confidence. Their uncertainty is well-founded. About the best thing that can be said about Virtuosity is that it's director Brett Leonard's most impressive effort to date -- but considering that his previous features were the awful Lawnmower Man and Hideaway, such a statement is damning with faint praise.

The villain of the piece is Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe), a "nanotech synthetic organism" with the combined personality of hundreds of serial killers. Somewhere in his programmed mind are the psyches of Hitler, Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, and the sadist responsible for the death of our hero's wife and daughter. That hero is ex-cop Parker Barnes (Washington), who's serving time behind bars because he shot a few innocent bystanders in his quest to exterminate his family's murderer. Now, through Sid 6.7, he gets a chance to redeem himself -- eliminate Sid and he can clear his record and his conscience.

The problem with this film is not the star. Despite slumming in a picture far below the quality of his normal fare, Washington is still the best thing about Virtuosity. In fact, he injects some much needed energy into the proceedings. Australian actor Russell Crowe is an adequate bad guy, although his Sid 6.7 lacks the vicious intensity with which Crowe imbued his Romper Stomper skinhead. Kelly Lynch, who plays Barnes' criminal psychologist partner, is dreadful -- and I'm not just talking about her hairdo. We could care less what happens to her character. At least we're spared a romance between her and Barnes.

Virtuosity's failing is its plot. What passes for a storyline is part recycled formula and part incomprehensible technobabble. The film blunders along, usually making very little sense, waiting for the next (of many) action scenes. Generally, these are well choreographed, even though they're familiar: car chases, rooftop fist-fights and shootouts, and a child-in-danger scenario. There's little in the way of originality. Virtual reality (where Sid gets his start before crossing into our world) is rapidly becoming an overused motion picture plot device.

As was true of Sandra Bullock in The Net, carrying Virtuosity falls on Washington's shoulders. For what it's worth, he makes the movie watchable. Ultimately, however, he has little to work with in this dreary, film-by-numbers flick -- even Ricochet offered more substance. Nevertheless, given Washington's presence and the promise of a virtual reality action story, Virtuosity has some appeal -- provided, of course, the viewers aren't selective.

1995 James Berardinelli


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