New Line // 1993 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 20th, 2003
The mission is impossible. The consequences deadly. The movie stupid.
A rogue Russian General (now where have we heard that before) is determined to sell nuclear weapons to Iraq (again, this is sounding awfully familiar). So he hires a disgruntled East German atom angler, Dr. Karl Leitzig (wait, we talked about this movie already, right?) to build him a couple handy dandy hydrogen heaters. And then he hires mercenary Alex "Buffalo Bill" Tierney to hijack a locomotive and send this electron happy shipment across the Breakheart Pass, around the Cassandra Crossing, and finally over to Persia's own Petticoat Junction. The United Nations, that well-known solver of the world's crises, calls in its elite team of emergency trainspotters, and before you can swoon over Ewan McGregor, a Kentucky fried Brit named Mike Graham comes crawling out of his professional motorcycle racing retirement to help head honcho Malcolm "Phil" Philpot discover who's preparing to flame broil Europe. And wouldn't you know it, there are moles, double agents, unexpected sympathizers, and enough traveling train footage to keep Lionel and Neil Young happy for a few more H-O scale days. Once the tired terrorist plot is revealed, it's up to the League of Nation commandos to stop this little engine that could blow up the world and hopefully flummox the firestarter's Detonator once and for all. If they don't, it's irradiated borscht for everyone.
Offering more automatic rifle fire than an NRA wedding reception and hoping to highlight the potential nuclear threat of the former Soviet Union by embodying it in the stoic Christopher Lee, Detonator walks that fine line between lame diversion and outright disaster so gingerly that you'll experience a high level of suspense and dread just waiting to see if it totally falls apart. There are a few occasions where the movie threatens to swan-dive into complete stupidity (the initial train gas attack, the final "twist" at the end), but more times than not the narrative rides the rails like an action thriller vagrant, hoping to find a hobo sign that indicates a friendly household where the lady present will cook you a free meal. Basically Runaway Train meets The Peacemaker, with a little Patrick Stewart X-Mening thrown in for upper crust crankiness, Detonator's nuke on the loose storyline is a rock solid premise. But then the filmmakers add a white trash Jame Gumb (played by the actual Silence star Ted Levine), a cast of Germans who are only good at following orders and making the trains run on time -- via Nintendo -- and Picard's pissed-off UN maitrè de, and suddenly, the atom smashing potential of the story seems superfluous. Detonator creates so much chaos in and amongst its characters that it would be easier to defuse the boxcar bomb than find a way for Alexandra Paul and her co-stars to get along realistically. And yet, even with its massive shortcomings, Detonator works up a small smattering of suspense toward its conclusion. Simply because of the basic action entities in place (bomb, brigade, bad guy) we feel, almost instinctually, the drama the film fails to deliver. We actually wonder, "what will happen" -- for about a second or two.
Frankly, Detonator cheats more than it plays fair. At the "don't call us, I'm James Bond" side of the swindle is Pierce "please give me a paycheck" Brosnan playing some manner of ex-field agent indebted to Jean Luc. Apparently, it's all over some failed love affair the two had in Laos (Pierce has a cute, coy nickname for the balding dandy, and all the ruffled ruler can say is "we can't talk about that here"). Like in another piece of exploding exposition, Live Wire, Brosnan is again cast as a guy who understands the ins and outs of timer to TNT wiring. But again like that aforementioned foray into the world of detonation, Brosnan does not make a convincing steely man of needle-nose action -- that is, unless there is a martini or a sexy babe attached to his holster. Decked out in army fatigues and prancing on top of a moving locomotive like he's doing the line dance to "Achy Breaky Heart," he always seems moments away from calling it quits, taking his accent, and going home. Equally out of her league is Alexandra Paul who personifies the "pretty people can't command" notion of officer training. Sure, she is attractive in a stage door cattle call kind of fashion, but her beauty attributes seem better suited for a career in travel rather than spy agency. It's really not all these misplaced actors fault. Alistair MacLean, whose novel Death Train was the source for this sore spot, has always seemed like the generic drugstore version of a thriller novelist. He can come up with the good-natured plot premise, but apparently figures that after he's done that he's finished. Time to pack up the fiction without fleshing out the rest of the clutter. This leaves Detonator feeling hollow in the middle, as if it's a fill-in-the-blank version of a film. MacLean gives you the outline; you supply the substance. However, you'd need to be Paddy Cheyefsky to create something compelling out of the routine rote train wreck.
New Line's DVD presentation of Detonator is just a notch above acceptable in the off-title sell through market. Beginning with the always pointless choice between a wide and full screen presentation (is there really someone out there who's going to want to watch an action sequence in a open matte or pan-and-scan motif?), the transfer is decent, if a little foggy. Scenes of blueprints and computer printouts are indistinct and the video monitors offering expository information also suffer from blurriness around the edges. Still, there are no major pixelization or compression issues, so if one simply sticks with the 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation they will be rewarded with a good print and fine cinematic experience (visually, that is). Within the sonic settings, we get a 5.1 surround track that only shines when bullets are bombarding Boxcar Willy. Otherwise, the excessively talky nature of the film requires that the front channels, exclusively, see the majority of aural expression. New Line brags that there is wonderful DVD-ROM content on this disc (as well as on others), but since not everyone will have access to it (including this reviewer), whether it makes up for the substantial lack of any other significant extra is a complete mystery. As is the choice to offer trailers for current actions films that make Detonator look like Muddle on the Orient Express. However, even the reanimated corpse of Ingrid Bergman couldn't add intrigue to the tired train keeps a rollin' randomness of this nuclear meltdown. Detonator has a decent, standard action premise. But it runs out of clever, cohesive coal long before reaching the satisfaction station.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD-ROM Content