Chain Reaction (1996) Review
Chain Reaction was directed by Andrew Davis (Under Siege, Stony Island), written by J.F. Lawton (V.I.P., Blankman) and Michael Bortman (Crooked Hearts, Candles on Bay Street), and stars Keanu Reeves (John Wick, Man of Tai Chi), Rachel Weisz (Confidence, Oz the Great and Powerful), Morgan Freeman (The Ritual Killer, The Minute You Wake up Dead), Fred Ward (Armored, 30 Minutes or Less), Kevin Dunn (Jobs, Mississippi Burning), Joanna Cassidy (Anthrax, Stay Hungry), Nicholas Rudall (The Babe, Crime Fiction), and Brian Cox (Dark Highlands, There Are No Saints). It’s about two alternative energy researchers who are forced to go on the run after being accused of murder.
The Plot: Most artists, musicians, and filmmakers will wait a while before cashing in on nostalgic memories of their best works, however, Davis had no reservations about double dipping as soon as he could. If you know the plot of The Fugitive, you know this one too.
Under the banner of Dr. Barkley (Rudall) at the University of Chicago, machinist Eddie (Reeves) has finally accomplished the goal of his research team: a sound frequency that can facilitate the usage of water in clean energy. Chain Reaction gives conflicting information as to how this process works, which makes the incoming plot hokier than it might have been with some clearer writing. Before the news can be broken to anyone, the research facility is destroyed and the project leads are killed, sending Eddie and fellow researcher Lily (Weisz) to old friend Maggie’s (Cassidy) location to wrap their heads around the incident.
In a move contrary to what made The Fugitive’s plot so engaging, Chain Reaction wastes no time giving away the details of its conspiracy. Another scientist on the team, Dr. Shannon (Freeman), has ties to Lyman (Cox), an industrialist who can’t afford to lose money, so he sets FBI agents Ford (Ward) and Doyle (Dunn) loose to frame Eddie and Lily for a crime they didn’t commit.
Between the time of the explosion and all of these reveals, only about 15 minutes have passed, with about 65 minutes left of Chain Reaction to work through. The process of proving themselves innocent remains for the leading pair, which is competently done, but most of the story is over before it can make an impact.
The Characters: Science and big business types collide in Lawton and Bortman’s script, but not to any degree of memorability or complexity. While there are some backstory and minor traits for a few of the characters here, they’re just filler attributes without substance.
Eddie’s perfectly aligned talents and missteps just have to be accepted for Chain Reaction to go anywhere, as without them he’d have no place being a patsy in the movie’s scheme. He’s a young guy working for little pay after being expelled from his previous school for causing a small explosion. Clearly, he has talent, as seen by his homemade burst transmitter and various inventions, but he’s reckless and forgetful.
Lily gets lost in the mix, establishing Weisz’s type of sexy braininess that she’d come to be known for, sans the personality. She lives on the third floor of Dr. Barkley’s house and works as a physicist, but the writers kind of give her whatever specialty she needs at any given moment, like being adept with computers and evidence tracking. There’s no real need for Lily’s presence, but she’s here.
Shannon’s motivations are shrouded in mystery, but his time in law school and working at DARPA under the Reagan administration make it clear that he’s an odd one out among the research team, with more political experience than scientific. His true leanings aren’t defined one way or the other, but Chain Reaction provides a sense of perceived purpose, even if whatever he’s acting on isn’t noble. None of these characters are above average, even if the cast playing them are. The acting doesn’t make up for this, though everyone gives passable performances, barring Freeman, who gave the role his all.
The Thrills: Although one could argue that Chain Reaction is more action than thriller, Davis’ focus on propulsion edges this outing into the latter category more so than the former. As is normally the case for the helmer’s work, the setpieces are solid.
I’m not sure that there’s better punctuation to a point than an explosion can bring. In this case, though, those responsible for the erasure of eight city blocks went the extra mile. Eddie arrives at the scene moments before the event, only to find Barkley tied to a chair with a bag over his head, giving the impression that there was more to the scene than the protagonist had the opportunity to learn.
Keeping with the conspiratorial theme, the bombers have the lab’s equipment monitored in order to detonate it at the right time that instability would arise, assuaging some suspicion. There’s a good foundation for the rest of the action to spring from.
Chases make up the bulk of the setpieces, and most of them are exciting, if not novel. Once the feds put out a warrant for Eddie and Lily, their flight begins. Watching Eddie run through the wet streets of Chicago and eventually up an elevating bridge with cops on either side is an invigorating sight, even if his quick slip away strains credulity. Logic slips further when the cops somehow don’t see an armed helicopter incite the next chase, but another mesmerizing visual of the duo using an airboat to escape police officers maintains the pace.
Scenes between events like those are just as watchable, as Eddie and Lily keep in contact with Shannon via coded messages and scrambled phone calls to learn who’s framing them. While the doctor maintains his dubious allegiance, the writers try to fill in the details about C-Systems, the company Lyman owns; this goes nowhere and the communication between the protagonists and their contact should’ve been rewritten for better clarity.
Because of the movie’s lacklustre plot, all of the setpieces are in service of little. However, there are still some suspenseful moments and elaborate chases that are visually interesting.
The Technics: With a long history of varied filmmaking behind him, Davis guides Chain Reaction into being another technically sound feature with a few slight differences from his other outings. There’s still plenty of formula in the picture, but little to slight.
Chicago normally plays host to Davis’s films, but the $50 million budget (the largest amount the director ever received) allowed him to explore more than just the dirty streets and sterile suburbs. Scenes in Hyde Park, the Natural History Museum, and a few swanky restaurants brighten up the proceedings, as well as some setpieces and locations in Wisconsin like Lake Geneva and the Yerkes Observatory all add up to a textured film. While the effects have aged, the inciting explosion is still visually striking as well, with a practically done blow up of a full-scale building selling the events.
Quick pacing and an average runtime (107 minutes altogether) help cover up most of the holes in Chain Reaction through sheer momentum. Any thoughts or second guesses about the flippant information provided are rattled by Jerry Goldsmith’s (Rudy, In Harm’s Way) score, which isn’t his best work, but is never less than exciting. Nitpicks still remain, like the title’s scientific principle relating to fission while the characters use fusion, and a terribly dubbed line but the film moves with ease.
Chain Reaction is neither the best nor worst work of anyone involved. It’s a blueprint thriller that provides enough of a rush to make it worth a viewing, even if there’s no special chemical reaction to result from doing so.