Action and intrigue. That's what you expect from a thriller . . . along with decent performances and a believable script, of course. And while director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") manages the chase scenes just fine, you have to wonder why he didn't insist that the script be tweaked to make more sense, or why he went with Keanu Reeves in the lead.
I have to admit that ever since I saw Reeves in "Parenthood" playing an undesirable stoner/surfer-dude boyfriend, I see glimpses of that performance in almost everything he does. He's still a little "dudish" in this film, in which he's supposed to be a member of a University of Chicago research team using cold fusion to come up with a viable and sustainable way of harnessing safe hydrogen power as an alternative "green" fuel. Then again, if this is the University of Chicago, which has produced more Nobel laureates than any other institution in America, why is there only one token Asian and one token Indian on the team? Hyde Park is crawling with brilliant Asian- and Indian-Americans, and so it's logical that there'd be greater representation on this research team.
No matter. The focus is on Eddie Kasalivich (Reeves), a college-dropout, motorcycle-riding machinist who works overtime and somehow manages to come up with the key breakthrough in the hydrogen energy project. Physicist Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) and all of the other Ph.D.s who lead this research team can't figure it out, but Eddie does. And so it's party time (even stuffy researchers get toasted when they have a big breakthrough). After escorting a drunken Lily to her apartment, Eddie goes back to the South Side facility in an old warehouse district to get his motorcycle. The problem is, as he approaches the compound he notices an asbestos removal truck coming from the main building. He then hears a warning light, and rushes to the aid of one of the lead professors on the project, finding the good professor tied to a railing, dead, with a plastic bag over his face. But the place is about to blow, and so he rides his bike out of there in a nick of time. Eight blocks totaled, with a mushroom cloud lighting up the skies of Chicago. And Eddie, despite the crash and the blast, with barely a scratch on him.
Enter the FBI, who begin questioning Eddie and Lily and wonder why one key researcher, Lu Chen (Tzi Ma) is suddenly missing. Things escalate. Lily receives a fax allegedly from Dr. Chen asking her to meet him in Beijing with the program data, and she says to Eddie, "It's not his writing. I'm being framed." So is he, it turns out.
Here's where the intrigue (and the confusion) begins. Peter De Vries once remarked that a novel should have "a beginning, a muddle, and an end." "Chain Reaction" is heavy on the muddle, which is why we don't mind that most of the time seems spent watching Eddie and Lily run from the police and the seemingly endless permutations of bad guys in heart-pounding action. The FBI becomes convinced they're the culprits after they're cornered on a rooftop and the state trooper ends up shot. It's only when the ballistics tests come back when the head FBI guy (Fred Ward) starts to suspect the two fugitives are as innocent as they claim.
Admittedly, logic isn't a top priority for the thriller genre, but at some point you really need to figure out what position the project's apparent honcho holds and what side he's really on. Ambiguity is one thing, confusion another. Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman) calmly smokes a cigar throughout much of the film, reassuring his young researchers (and us) that everything is going to work out okay. But the facile (and not terribly dialog-strong) script from J.F. Lawton and Michael Bortman skips along the surface of logic and doesn't really offer enough explanation for this to work as an effective intrigue.
There are other problems, as well. It's exciting watching Eddie elude the entire Chicago police force and FBI in a Michigan Avenue chase and drawbridge acrobatics, but about as believable as his being able to thrash the bad guys in chase/fight sequences at Chicago's famed Field Museum and Museum of Science and Industry. Mostly, though, logic fails if you consider how quickly this on-foot fugitive is able to go from place to place, and how, like James Bond, he's not only able to locate a top-secret parallel research facility that factors prominently in this thriller, but that he's also able to enter undetected and infiltrate the ranks of ID-badge-wearing scientists and workers. Some of the scientific landscape even recalls the laboratory of Dr. No.
Is it exciting? Yes. Maybe it's a Pavlovian reaction, but when you see people being chased almost constantly throughout a film, your heart rate increases and the blood starts pumping faster. You'll have that reaction watching "Chain Reaction." Reeves received a Razzie nomination for Worst Actor, but I'm not sure that's fair. The dialog doesn't offer any of the actors much of a chance to create characters of any depth. All of the actors are caught up in a chain reaction of action scenes, with barely enough time to pat their back pockets to make sure they've still got their SAG cards.
Curiously, the specs on the back of the box and all the press materials list the aspect ratio at 2.35:1, but the picture is stretched to fill out the entire 16x9 screen of a widescreen television. No bars top or bottom. I can't begin to speculate on what's going on, but there's no distortion of images around the edges. Without comparing it to the standard disc (which I don't have) I can't really tell whether there's any detail lost. As for quality, the 1080p HD picture (transferred using MPEG-2 technology at 19MBPS onto a 25GB single-layer disc) looks pretty good. As always, the greatest detail appears in close-ups, with Morgan Freeman's face looking as good on-camera as I've seen it. There are a lot of soft-focus backgrounds and quite a bit of variation in color saturation from scene to scene, but overall the picture is very good.
Bam! Pow! KaBLEWY! Boy, the explosions sound great on this English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio. If you've got your speakers set up right and you get good sound dynamics in your TV room, "Chain Reaction" effectively spreads the sound across the room. The movement of sound from one side of the room to the other is especially well-done. Additional options are a French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby 2.0 Surround, with subtitles in English (CC), Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean.
Not counting the theatrical trailer, the only bonus feature is a pop-up trivia track. I have to admit that I almost prefer the trivia tracks to commentaries, though. This one has a nice blend of location-related facts and behind-the-scenes trivia. Since the film was shot entirely on location in Chicago and Wisconsin, there's plenty to say. I mean, "pop up."
"Chain Reaction" is a heart-pounding thriller with mind-numbing dialog and logic. Given all that the two fugitives go through together, there's precious little chemistry between Reeves and Weisz, and Freeman seems wasted in a role that calls for a wooden performance. But you have to give Davis credit. He knows how to milk those action and chase scenes for all they're worth. Because of that, and despite all the flaws, "Chain Reaction" is still entertaining.