Fox // 1996 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // February 13th, 2007
Get ready to react.
After the Summer blockbuster season has passed and moviegoers have had their fill of big-screen thrills for another year, studios begin to release their "also-ran" attractions. Some of these pictures prove to be sleeper hits, while others appear best slept through. Therefore, in August 1996 when notable stars Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman graced the one-sheet for Chain Reaction, audiences were challenged to decide if this end-of-the-season thriller would be worthy of a peek or if the big acts had already packed up and gone home. Now, seeing it as an early release in the year of the great high-definition format battle, could it be this was an overlooked gem that might finally get its due accolades?
Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves, Speed) is a student machinist fortunate enough to be a member of a University of Chicago research team tasked with determining a way to extract clean-burning hydrogen from water. Futurist and utopian visionary Dr. Alistair Barkley (Nicholas Rudall, The Babe) is guiding the collective toward his dream of delivering a cheap and profuse energy supply that could revolutionize the world and perhaps bring about an end to global conflict and warfare. Just as Eddie cracks the secret for stabilizing the extraction process, project sponsor and overseer Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman, Batman Begins) seems more concerned than ever. Fears of espionage ensue as the team's research lab disintegrates in an 8-block-leveling hydrogen explosion, leaving some members missing and others under high suspicion, including Eddie and the lovely physicist Dr. Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz, Enemy at the Gates). As the FBI closes in on Eddie and Lily, it seems the project's goals were not what they appeared to be, and, most disturbingly, that Shannon might not be who he claimed to be.
Don't look for too much depth in Chain Reaction because it's largely a by-the-numbers tale of political suspense and intrigue. Under the practiced hand of Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), it moves along at a rapid pace that insists you keep your eyes peeled, your ears open, and your mouth shut. Lose your focus and you may lose your way through this hyper-kinetic espionage caper. If you can keep your attention for the 106-minute duration, though, you'll be rewarded with a generally enjoyable thriller that delivers constant twists and revelations, never absolutely scintillating yet certainly satisfying. In the end, you might scratch your head over the final resolution, but only if you failed to remain committed to the rapid-fire details thrown your way over the course of the picture. If you remained alert, though, you'll recognize the unmistakable conspiracy theory that was suggested from the very beginning.
While Chain Reaction succeeds in its mission, it can't help but come across as a minor motion picture featuring major Hollywood stars. To that end, we immediately doubt its credibility and that of its actors, wondering if this was on of those "in-between" jobs of theirs or, alternately, if the film was promised one way then ultimately redirected another by meddling studio heads. Either way, as entertaining as it is, it's surely forgettable as it looks like so many of the other films of its genre (immediately, I think about the accomplished Harrison Ford in the recently low-flying Firewall). Regardless, Morgan Freeman is irreproachable in his performance, exhibiting the unwavering calm and determination that has made him such a figure of steely resolve in this sort of role. Keanu Reeves seems to take a vacation from acting here, never stretching himself much beyond his "unwitting hero" persona. Rachel Weisz performs dutifully as the pretty female who's welled up with tears and largely exists to be rescued by the hero. Beyond these three, the remainder of the cast is a collection of capable character actors who work as "role players" to move the narrative along much as we would expect.
Coming to Blu-Ray as an exclusive release (Fox has not announced support of the competing HD-DVD format as of this writing), Chain Reaction actually looks better than it is. The image is presented via an MPEG-2 encoded transfer, which might suggest inferiority to the advanced MPEG-4 and VC-1 codecs, yet it does a remarkable job here. Thanks largely to a mostly-vibrant production design, the image looks crisp and dimensional in nearly every scene (the only exception being a few exterior shots of the Chicago side streets that were intentionally muted). The interior of the research lab and the cool blue-tinted hydrogen separation chamber look especially impressive. Other interior scenes utilize generous amounts of amber lighting tones that work to eke out exceptional detail in the settings as well as in the actors hair, skin, and clothing textures. This is one of the better transfers to date and could easily be regarded a mid-Tier 1 candidate. As a side note, the keep case insert describes this as a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, though it's clearly framed at 1.78:1. Is this internal espionage at Fox, maybe?
The audio performs as well as the video, with the onboard DTS HD Master Lossless Audio track making excellent use of all surround channels. The discrete signals succeed in directing natural sounding effects around the viewing area, working well with the actors' reactions on screen. The LFE channel is summoned into service very well as the hydrogen separator rumbles and rocks, and you'll be tempted to secure your sub-woofer to the ground during the hydrogen explosion. Dialog is well maintained and always discernible throughout. The only casualty in this mix is the late Jerry Goldsmith's score, which is pushed too far to the background over the course of the picture.
As for extras, this is where this Blu-Ray disc comes up short. First, it offers the now-routine collection of HD-enhanced trailers for this and other BR releases. Beyond this, the Blu-Ray exclusive Trivia Track is present, providing frequent overlays of information pertinent to the production, the shooting locations, the actors, and the subject matter of energy exploration. The information is interesting enough, but a PiP delivery with actual cast and crew comments are what BR enthusiasts are seeking. With those being the only extras here, its conceivable some would call this a missed opportunity in relation to the format's capabilities.
Chain Reaction is certainly not a top-shelf feature and, for that reason, early adopters of the costly Blu-Ray technology might rightfully ask for more significant releases (with Fox, Disney, and Sony owning some of the most sought-after titles; surely you can guess a few of them off the top of your head). Nevertheless, the picture and audio both succeed well in their HD treatment and collectively serve to further prove the technology's potential. As a reasonably compelling thriller, it makes for a worthy inclusion in the growing BR catalog of titles.
If you're one who enjoys political and industrial espionage with plenty of quick hints and perpetual twists, Chain Reaction should satisfy. In regards to the high-definition aspect, the film utilizes the format's key capabilities admirably and thereby heightens the enjoyment factor.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Trivia Track
* Theatrical Trailers