Courtesy Photo
Directed by Mimi Leder

Starring George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures, Alexander Baluev & Armin Mueller-Stahl

This film is on the Best of 1997 list.

"The Peacemaker"

Opened: Sept. 26, 1997 | Rated: R

I've always been leery of giving an action movie four stars. I've only done it twice before and I'm afraid no one will believe me. After all, what could possibly be new in this tired genre of explosions and catch phrases?

OK, how about a pounding, sledgehammer of an action movie void of even a single catch phrase? How about tension between the male and female leads based on something other than sex? How about an action movie that trades as much on the intricacies of the international intelligence game as it does on theater-shaking bomb blasts?

I'm not saying "The Peacemaker" is the "Citizen Kane" of action movies. There's no such thing. But when someone like me, who sees 150-plus movies a year (many of them paint-by-numbers action flicks) finds himself actually cheering during a car chase/shoot-out, well that's a pretty fresh car chase.

"The Peacemaker," directed by TV veteran and feature freshman Mimi Leder, eschews many action hallmarks and flaunts others in its aim for a little genuine suspense with its rock 'em-sock 'em thrills.

It stars Nicole Kidman in a role you cannot believe her in until you see the movie. As Dr. Julia Kelly, she's the Lawrence Livermore-trained head of a government agency (lamely named the Nuclear Smuggling Group) that keeps track of the world's warheads in case one goes missing -- and one has.

In an unusually handsome and rigorous early scene, night-goggled rebel Russian troops hijack a train carrying dismantled warheads, steal a few of them, then crash the rest of the cargo headlong into a passenger train and, just for good measure, set off one nuke to cover up the crime.

To track and retrieve the warheads, Dr. Kelly is paired with Lt. Col. Tom Devoe (George Clooney), a daredevil special forces officer who is introduced during a misconduct hearing. It seems he 1) got in barroom brawl during a smuggling sting and 2) gave a Russian informant's teenage daughter a Ford Explorer.

Attitude established, Clooney doesn't really act so much as he just does The Clooney, complete with the charismatic blink and other trademark mannerisms. I'm OK with this as I find The Clooney beguiling ("Batman & Robin" aside). But even if you don't, there's plenty to like here.

What makes "The Peacemaker" so fresh and thrilling is that while it does visit many standard action staples, it treats each of them with a surprisingly fresh eye.

The standard: Pursued by the smugglers, our heroes get into a luxury car demolition derby in scenic downtown Vienna.

The difference: Leder's wholly unique take on car crashes is so skillful you can actually feel them.

Another standard: The bombs are eventually tracked to a caravan of refugee trucks leaving the site of the nuclear detonation. But which one is it?

The difference: Monitoring the caravan by satellite, Devoe calls the smugglers' car phone and makes them panic. "Remember watching CNN during the Gulf War and seeing missiles hit a single truck from hundreds of miles away?" he teases.

Refreshingly, Devoe doesn't use these action sequences just to be flippant. After the death of his Eastern Europe contact (Armin Mueller-Stahl in a surprisingly brief role), he is focused and angry -- even killing one baddie point-blank while he's trapped in a mangled car. That's an honest hero.

And "The Peacemaker" then invokes more cerebral, classic espionage fare in introducing of the mastermind behind the bomb heist -- a Bosnian politician (Romanian actor Marcel Iures) with a murdered wife and daughter for motive.

He takes the paired down nuke to New York because he wants to blow up the U.N. A standard goal for an action movie antagonist, but this guy is not a tyrant or a tycoon with a car made of gold. He's just a man who blames Western interference in his country's civil war for the death of his family.

Leder never forgets her job is to overdose the audience on adrenaline, she just goes about it by employing more artful channels than the genre requires.

The eye-popping camera work for instance, that takes us inside the panicked head of a special forces sniper on a New York rooftop being ordered to fire at the man with the bomb when suddenly a little girl riding on her father's shoulders gets is in the way. Will he take the shot?

"The Peacemaker" is a great thriller that leaves modern a James Bond and Jack Ryan in the dust. It presumes intelligence on the part of the audience and lets fly with plot complexities, moral quandaries and even emotion. In one scene Kidman chokes back hard tears while reading the personnel files on men killed in an attack she green-lighted.

If all action movies were this good, Steven Segal would be out of a job.

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