Published September 1, 1997
The new nukes-on-the-loose action thriller, The Peacemaker, tells us in its opening credits that it was directed by Mimi Leder, but as the first and presumably showcase cinematic product of the Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen “Dreamworks” studio, it has all the earmarks of a Spielbergian extravaganza. There are advantages and disadvantages to the fact. Or, really, one advantage and one disadvantage. The advantage is that it is fast-paced, never dawdles or wastes time and is full of breath-taking action sequences. If what you like from the movies is that Indiana Jones-style, rollercoaster narrative and to hell with characterization or anything more subtle, then this here’s your movie. The disadvantage is, as it is with all the rest of the Spielbergian oeuvre, that it is brain-dead.
And there is something about a brain-dead political movie that I find particularly irksome. The plot has a crazy right-wing Russian general (Alexander Baluev) stealing ten nuclear warheads in order to put them on sale for fantastic sums and covering his tracks by staging a nuclear explosion in the Urals, at the cost of untold numbers of dead. What else do you expect of a crazy right-wing general? But just to make sure we’ve got him tagged right, the script has the c.r-w.g. observe of a parade of refugees: “I hate them because they’re poor.” Of course if he had been a crazy left wing general he would have loved all the poor refugees and would have felt really bad about killing so many people. Yet so far, I suppose, so good. It’s possible. It could happen, as Mike Myers’s Wayne would say. Maybe.
But here is where mere foundering implausibility sinks forever into a Mariana Trench of stupidity. For the c.r-w.g’s only customer is a Bosnian pianist called Dusan (Marcel Iures) who claims to be Serb, Croat and Muslim all rolled into one (we mustn’t offend any particular nationality!). After his wife and daughter are killed in Sarajevo by a (presumably) Serbian sniper he begins to brood in Olympian fashion about his nation’s troubles and how they should be left to his Serb-Croat-Muslim fellow countrymen to work out for themselves, without the help of the meddling foreigners of the IFOR UN force. So in the intervals of playing lugubrious Chopin Nocturnes, he decides to break his piggy bank and pay the c.r-w.g’s outrageous price for the dubious pleasure of setting off a nuclear explosion at the U.N. building in Manhattan.
I’m sorry, but even Wayne is not going to buy that one.
To make matters worse, our action hero in this case is not, to me anyway, a charmer. George Clooney plays Col. Tom Devoe, a hot-shot army ranger with the usual complement of martial, romantic and linguistic skills (the latter two sorts of skills we have to take on trust), but somehow it doesn’t carry conviction. For one thing, this supposedly fluent Russian speaker who is completely at home and among friends in Eastern Europe and Russia, the master of the region’s political and military set up, cannot pronounce the words “Urals” , “Chechnya,” or “Azerbaijan” properly, and actually has to look up the last on a map in order to discover that it is situated on the border of Iran. He pronounces the name of the Loire River in France as if it were “Lower,” and when an urbane Austrian proudly showing him around what looks like a Chateau of the Lower points out to him a Tiepolo on the wall, Col Tom says with a smirk, “I’m a big Leroy Nieman fan myself.”
In other words, this is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Yet we are meant to root for our philistine hero as he does battle with the sinister, Chopin-playing terrorist who is determined to blow away a couple of million New Yorkers because—well, because he’s unhappy. It’s true that Hollywood has often appealed to the baser instincts of its audiences by contrasting a big lovable American lug who has more muscles than brains with sinister European art-lovers who listen to classical music when they are not murdering good red-blooded Americans. But to make matters worse, this piano-playing pansy is a conservative! In explaining, in articulo mortis, his reasons for wanting to vaporize the east side of Manhattan and a fair bit of Queens he can only say: “I want it to be like it was.” Well, there you are. That’s enough reason right there to hate the bugger.
Unfortunately, it is not any reason to love Col Tom. In fact, Col Tom is not lovable. He is meant to seem lovable, especially to his fetching co-star, Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman), a nuclear scientist and the movie’s statutory babe-brainbox. But he doesn’t do anything lovable. There is only the barest hint of what must have been the all-too predictable scenario of the action man Colonel— “a talented soldier with sloppy impulse control” as Dr Kelly describes him—and a lady love who suddenly finds herself “not in Washington anymore.” The funniest line of the movie comes with Col Tom’s finishing of that cliché: “This is the real world!”
Yeah right, the real world in which a meathead like you saves the world from nuclear devastation singlehandedly. This is a “real” world that makes Washington, D.C. look like Newark. Col. Tom hasn’t the slightest individuality. It seems enough for Ms Leder and her screenwriter, Michael Schiffer, to put him in the classic role of the big, dumb lovable lug and hope that this by itself will be enough to make him lovable. It is not. He is, humanly speaking, a bore and a boor. And Dr Kelly is not much better. The movie is so concerned to give us our thrill-a-minute action ride that it forgets to do the most basic character development—that which is necessary if we are to care what happens to these people, which is in turn what’s necessary if we are to be truly thrilled by their encounter with a succession of perils.