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Looking Back: Chain Reaction (1996)

During the summer of 1996, 20th Century Fox made a fortune distributing “Independence Day,” the alien invasion blockbuster that pulverized the competition and became an instant classic. Later that summer, they also released “Chain Reaction,” a Keanu Reeves starring action/drama that, despite its pedigree and a fair amount of hype, became almost instantly forgotten. Whereas most Americans will forever revisit the sight of The White House being blown to smithereens by extraterrestrials, few will recall the time Reeves alluded a catastrophic explosion on his motorcycle and ducked while a truck flew over his head.

Reeves stars as Eddie Kasalivich, a research technician who discovers a new form of clean energy. Almost immediately after celebrating his scientific breakthrough with colleagues, the lab is blown to smithereens, as well as a chunk of Chicago. Kasalivich and his research partner (played by Rachel Weisz) are framed for the explosion and go on the run, trying to discover the source of the conspiracy against them. Meanwhile, Kasalivich questions whether his boss (Morgan Freeman) can be trusted or if he’s in on the plot against him.

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If the plot sounds similar to “The Fugitive,” then it should come as no surprise that “Chain Reaction” was made by the same director, Andrew Davis. However, unlike the Harrison Ford starring Best Picture Oscar nominee, this one never took off. Part of the problem is Reeves, who is serviceable but still seems miscast in the lead. While “Chain Reaction” is never dull, it never soars as high as Dr. Richard Kimble’s similar but much more riveting search for the truth.

Fred Ward is clearly standing in for Tommy Lee Jones, in a part similar to the Sam Gerard role that won Jones an Oscar. Unfortunately, the usually wily Ward seems restrained and unable to give the part the zest it needs. As the love interest/running partner for Reeves, Rachel Weisz has no chemistry with her co-star and seems out of place (the same could be said of their re-teaming in “Constantine” years later). The saving grace is Freeman, terrific in a role with the most layers and intrigue. Coming off of his acclaimed work in “Seven,” Freeman was beginning a scene stealing run of playing mentors to younger actors.

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The biggest problem is that all of the behind the scenes intrigue with Freeman’s character is so much more compelling than the merely good but not outstanding action sequences. It’s fun seeing Reeves leap over an airplane mockup, slide down a Chicago bridge and appear utterly freezing while hoofing it in visibly frigid temperatures. Yet, the movie never tops its initial explosion sequence or creates a set piece on par with “The Fugitive.”

Reportedly, Reeves signed on for this when it was called “Dead Drop” and had a promising script…which was altered heavily by the time filming began. As one of his post-“Speed” career bumps, which nearly derailed his momentum until “The Matrix” made him red hot, this isn’t an embarrassment or the disaster some have reported. However, while polished and entertaining enough, it leaves little impact, both as an environmental commentary or chase thriller.

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The result is a movie that is worth seeing but nothing to get overly excited about. That was the response most had after seeing this in ’96, at the tail end of a summer full of sensational movie moments. After seeing Tom Cruise dangle from the ceiling, a tornado carry a cow, Randy Quaid blow up the mother ship and Eddie Murphy don a fat suit, the sight of Reeves running through freezing cold Chicago wasn’t enough to capture movie goers. On DVD/blu-ray, the movie is worth another look. Just don’t expect to remember “Chain Reaction” the following day.

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