ARMAGEDDON

PG-13

-By Maitland McDonagh


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Here's the problem. There's an asteroid the size of Texas hurtling through space. It just took out one of NASA's space stations, it's raining lethal debris on Manhattan (oops-there goes the top of the Chrysler Building!) and it's going to collide with Earth in less than two weeks, frying half the human race on contact and condemning the rest to death by nuclear winter. What do you do about it?

First thing, you forget about all that Deep Impact human-interest stuff (the unfortunate part of which being that it wasn't all that interesting): Armageddon features no Strangelove-ian plans to survive the post-impact freeze, no squirreling away civilization's greatest artifacts, no long and meaningful talks amongst family members about love and responsibility and what it all means. Deep Impact built a subplot around sending a crew armed with a lot of cool toys to blow up the errant space invader with nuclear weapons. Armageddon builds a movie around the same scenario, and keeps the focus firmly on he-man heroics and high-tech machinery.

So, NASA engineer Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a brainy good old boy with no patience for fools and pompous jerks, concocts a plan to drill a hole in the asteroid and drop a nice big nuke down its throat, then blow the big rock to kingdom come before it gets close enough to send us on an extended vacation with the dinosaurs. And, rather than signing up a bunch of right-stuff straight-arrows to dig that crucial big hole on Uncle Sam's dime, he finds the biggest pack of boorish, authority-flouting, barely-fit-to-walk-up-a-flight-of-stairs oil-rig rats on Earth. Their team leader is third-generation driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), who could find oil under his grandma's chicken coop-he's the best there is and everybody says so. His men are the usual crowd of colorful misfits with hearts of gold: compulsive gambler Chick (Will Patton), who's estranged from his ex-wife and small son; motorcycle fanatic Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan); hotshot A.J. (Ben Affleck), who wants to marry Stamper's willowy daughter Grace (Liv Tyler); pervy genius Rockhound (Steve Buscemi), who's never met a stripper he didn't like; sweet-natured space-cadet Oscar (Owen Wilson); and chubby mama's boy Tucker (Anthony Guidera).

While getting through director Michael Bay's hugely successful The Rock was a little like spending 130 minutes on a particularly sick-making amusement-park ride, watching Armageddon is a considerably less grueling experience. That's not to say it's kinder or gentler or anything: Fellow asteroid disaster pic Deep Impact may have held all the special effects for the last 20 minutes, but Armageddon starts pelting the major cities of the world with space debris before it gets around to introducing the above-the-title cast. But the explosions and vein-popping, testosterone-fueled shouting matches are punctuated by quieter 'character bits': Grace and A.J. nuzzling one another like happy puppies, Harry worrying that he's been a bad dad, Truman confessing that he always wanted to be an astronaut but had to join NASA's engineering division because of a bum leg, Chick paying an unexpected visit to his embittered ex and promising he's going to make her-and their little boy-proud of him. Sure, the touchy-feely stuff is as cynical as hell, designed to insure that women don't dig in their pretty little heels and refuse to ante up at the box office. But it's slickly done and breaks up the rowdy techno-jock stuff, which comes perilously close to wearing out its welcome on more than one occasion.

Never let it be said that Armageddon errs on the side of subtlety: This is a movie in which the adversarial relationship between protective pop Harry and daughter-seducing whippersnapper A.J. is established with a shotgun. No matter that it's patently ridiculous to imagine self-made man Harry, however mad he may be at A.J. for sleeping with Grace, running around like a loon shooting up his own oil rig. Bruce Willis fans love the sight of their main man with a big ol' firearm grasped firmly in hand. And just because you might not see a natural point at which to insert a strip-club scene into a thrilling tale of accidental astronauts pulling together to save humanity doesn't mean that the Armageddon team shares your lack of imagination. If a medical exam is required, a starchy nurse will be sure to hold up a rectal probe. If something is going to explode, someone's sure to shout, 'It's gonna blow!' If the world is watching the skies, we'll be seeing bindi-ed crowds in front of the Taj Mahal, heartland farm families in fields, the sun glinting off their collective blondness, and French students hunched over an outdoor caf table. If a phallic-shaped nuclear weapon is wheeled out, someone's sure to straddle it and declare that he wants to feel the power between his legs. Armageddon is broad and coarse, an emotion-machine, but every image is polished to such a high shine that you can almost convince yourself it's just good, clean populist fun.

--Maitland McDonagh


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