It’s almost as if mid-way the writers and producers decided that a horrible virus eliminating an entire small town in a disturbing fever wasn’t good enough. So they inject a crusty scowling military man who has been given orders to destroy the whole town. It’s so rote and typical of Hollywood that it’s jarring to the tone of “Outbreak.” Wolfgang Peterson’s ensemble thriller can never really decide if it wants to be an action adventure thriller or a dramatic thriller. It wants to feature explosions and epic helicopter chases, but it also tries to inject explorations in to military policy, government corruption, and discussion about past events in history that were rationalized as a means to an end.
It’s hard to take Donald Sutherland seriously when he begins sounding off about the US military being justified for their past discrepancies, when he’s depicted as a scowling mustache twirling villain in the finale, almost obsessed with wreaking destruction on the town that’s been ravaged by the horrible virus. And the final scenes are almost like something out of Robert Altman’s “The Player,” where the story could end on a down and more realistic note of military policy and wiping out a horrible and disastrous plague to save the world. And yet Dustin Hoffman’s character Sam Daniels is able to halt the bombing by giving the trained fighter pilots a spirited talk about saving the world. It’s just pure Hollywood fluff where black is black and white is white. Which is s shame considering “Outbreak” has all the earmarkings to be a great dramatic thriller with a bleak resolve.
Somewhere in the script there’s a hint of a great premise about a plague hiding within a foreign animal that makes it to America and begins spreading its airborne germ, only for the germ to evolve mid-way and become a true logical villain. There’s also the plot device of the monkey that’s the carrier of the disease and is threatening to make its way across the country and spread the plague further. And suddenly, the story is wrapped with a pretty bow without ever really answering the more pressing questions. Will the government approve of the new antidote for the plague? What if it’s recalled? What are the side effects? What of the people that died from the plague? What if it evolved in to something else?
Would Sam Daniels and Salt ever be punished for defying the military and almost causing a national incident? Did McLintock really go to jail or was he just reprimanded? The cast is absolutely stellar, with the entire list of respective performers ranging from veterans like Morgan Freeman to up and comers of the time like Kevin Spacey. Cuba Gooding Jr. is basically the sidekick to Dustin Hoffman’s Sam Daniels, who plays a plot device as the optimistic young soldier taught what it is to value human life over military protocol by his wise old Jewish mentor. Hoffman’s performance is perhaps the most over the top as he seems to play his role as if he’s literally practicing for a run at an Oscar.
Every gesture is accentuated, every line of dialogue is hit upon like it’s the very last performance he’ll ever give, and it’s tough to dislike him in spite of it, even when he’s obviously trying to outdo literally everyone he shares the screen with. For all intents and purposes, director Wolfgang Peterson’s “Outbreak” has great potential to be a wonderful variation of “On the Beach,” but it’s much too enamored by its Hollywood trappings to deliver a genuine story about humanity. I mean why include an epic helicopter chase in a movie about a massive deadly plague over taking a small town, anyway? Flawed, uneven, and abundant with Hollywood fluff and happy endings, “Outbreak” is overall a solid pandemic film with an incredible all star cast, it’s just a shame the premise isn’t too concerned with delivering a harrowing tale of a plague, and just wants to provide us with more mainstream hokum.