20 Years On: “Chain Reaction”

The challenging thing with thrillers, other than making them even somewhat thrilling or suspenseful, is finding a way to continue viewing them as such. Once you see a thriller, going back and watching it again, especially if it was well made, will be tough. Nothing can surprise you, and you will probably have a tough time getting in the same frame of mind you were the first time. Hopefully at least, you can find the film entertaining enough, otherwise it’s just an exercise in what was or what could’ve been.

The 20th Century Fox film “Chain Reaction”, is an entertaining film, but doesn’t fully capture that feeling needed to be an effective thriller. Maybe it’s just the time between this viewing and the last.

This drama film stars Keanu Reeves (“The Neon Demon”, “Keanu”), Morgan Freeman (upcoming “Ben-Hur (2016)”, “Now You See Me 2”), Rachel Weisz (upcoming films “Complete Unknown”, “The Light Between Oceans”), Fred Ward (“True Detective”, “2 Guns”), Kevin Dunn (upcoming “Keeping Up with the Joneses”, “The Night Of”), Brian Cox (Penny Dreadful”, “War & Peace (2016)”), Joanna Cassidy (“Odd Mom Out”, “Lady Dynamite”), and Chelcie Ross (“Chicago P.D.”, “Consumed”).

The film was directed by Andrew Davis (“The Guardian”, “Holes”) and written by J.F. Lawton (“Jackson”, “DOA: Dead or Alive”) and Michael Bortman (“Taken from M: The Tiffany Rubin Story”, “Resurrecting the Champ”).

The film originally opened on Aug. 2, 1996.

For some reason I’m still being surprised by what’s turning 20 this year. I don’t know why, especially as I made the lists and then the calendar’s telling me which ones were. I guess it’s the fact that in between each new 20 year old film, there’s many more drawing my attention. Some new, some not. And I can’t forget the fact that when I made the list and then the calendar’s, it was months ago. August is finally here, but three months later. On the plus side, I can still be surprised by what’s turning 20 this year! Why is that a plus? I can still get excited about the fact that a film has hit an important anniversary.

This particular film I’m torn about. I recall watching it, after stumbling upon it and the fact that Weisz was in it, and loving it! It did everything for me that I was hoping. I think I watched the trailer before my first viewing. Regardless, it unspooled like a thriller, and at that time, years ago, I don’t think I was too aware of the various types of thrillers or the ones that could be good or entertaining. This one was right on all levels for me and I was just so enthralled by the story. I’m sure I was surprised at moments too. Now, before I say the obvious, I believe that those that haven’t seen this film, can probably respond the same way I did. At the least they may be able to be entertained. Or, as I’v now discovered, this film isn’t really all that great. It’s almost not good. It came so close to something really good, but the writers seemed to stop short, or just didn’t know how to craft a more complex film. Remember, this is a thriller, which only works if you make it just complex and suspenseful enough, but not too much or too little. Either of those, and you’ve got loads of problems. So, I have hope for others, but I’m wondering if I’ll ever view this film like I once did.

Again, it wasn’t thrilling. That aspect, is in part because I’ve seen it. I remembered a lot of what happened before. Because of this, like with “The Sixth Sense”, “The Others”, and many other films, you can’t be surprised again or anything really. I could see where the writers strived for this, and the points were hit pretty well, but they just didn’t do anything. I was pretty much just watching images flash across my screen with no emotional reaction involved. The next problem is, well, at least I believe it is, it was too simple. It was fine in it’s unspooling of the plot, which is why I don’t consider this film bad at all, but it could’ve been so much more! It was too safe, and I even began to think that it looked like many other thrillers or mystery films that have come before or since. Sometimes you can look past this, but so many other elements have to be there as they’ll counterbalance the weaker elements, and you won’t care. They weren’t and I noticed. It mostly affected my view of the final film, and my time spent watching it, but to now have this as my impression of the film, I’m saddened about that.

I mentioned the word mystery, which is appropriate because this film is basically a whodunit. I’m fine with that, especially if you’ve got a film that takes you on a suspenseful adventure along the way. This film’s about a conspiracy, which is why Reeves and Weisz are on the run. They’re being framed, but by whom and why? Gotta watch and find out! Again, this is where the unspooling comes into play. It works, but not on some “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” level. You have no trouble getting into this mystery, which is because of a lot of science and research, as you’re pretty much thrust into it quickly. From there it’s all a guessing game. During this time too, you get to spend time with all the characters. Some are just doing their jobs, like Ward and Dunn, and others are piecing together what the hell’s going on and why, like Weisz and Reeves. Everyone else is just there for whatever purpose they’re needed for the story. It’s not a bad way to spend time with characters, but clearly it wasn’t about learning who they are. The character’s sheer determination to find out the truth is enough, as they do it in largely intelligent ways and are likable.

Likability gets you so far. So do decent chase sequences and moments of faux suspense. There’s still some elements of the story that need to be there for this film to move past just entertaining. Well, they’re not, at least for me and my viewing. One big issue I took with this film, which only underscores how safe and formulaic it is, is the fact that the FBI agents (Ward and Dunn plus others), brought in to investigate the explosion, are your typical idiots. Yes a lot of crazy stuff is occurring, but with so many agents investigating what happened, and this film taking place over the course of about a week, four days at the least, I’m surprised no one noticed the things that didn’t make sense. So much evidence was right there in front of them, but instead of having intelligent people looking at all the evidence and pieces, they flat out decide Weisz and Reeves had a hand in the crime. It’s only later on, and conveniently so, that Ward realizes some things don’t add up at all, and begins looking at the case from a new angle.

A personal issue I take with this film, could very well just be my own fault. With any conspiracy and those that perpetrate it, there’s got to be a reason. I don’t know what that is. In between the short break I took watching this film, somehow I’d forgotten past details. Worse, which I didn’t think was possible, especially this late in a film I’ve seen, I got bored. I didn’t care to fully pay attention. Images flashing across my screen with no emotional reaction. Somehow in the lines of dialogue delivered so well, be an excellent cast, I missed the reason behind this conspiracy. And thus, even now, I have no idea why the events of the film had to take place.

Some thrillers work no matter when you see them or how many times you do. Others, are still entertaining enough, but as time goes by, reveal that there wasn’t a whole lot worth getting excited about. If anything you can learn from the film. What to flat out avoid, what you can approve on, or what you can just do different from the get go. When you have a great cast it’s best that they have enough compelling stuff to do, or they’ll be pretty much wasted. This seems to be the case here, and now that I’ve learned that, I get the fun task of debating whether or not it belongs in my vast film collection. The things you learn when watching decent thrillers, or not.

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