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Producer Jerry Bruckheimer certainly knows how to put together blockbusters. With movies such as The Rock and Con Air to his credit, Bruckheimer has learned how to deliver a product virtually guaranteed to bowl over the competition at the box office. His newest movie, Armageddon, is no different. In fact, it might turn out to be the biggest box-office success of his career. It's got everything that audiences love nowadays: macho men behaving manly, skyscrapers collapsing, outer space action, Americans striving to save the world, and huge explosions . . . lots and lots of huge explosions. This movie is filled with billowing clouds of orange and red. The movie even recreates one of the largest explosions in the history of this planet--when an asteroid smashed into the Earth, releasing a huge cloud of debris that encircled the planet, blocking out light for years and wiping out the dinosaurs. "It happened before. It will happen again. It's just a question of when," says narrator Charlton Heston.
Bruckheimer isn't a fool, though. He knows that explosions in themselves can't sustain a movie. Somewhere, you've gotta have a story. So he assembled a huge staff of writers (six writers receive credit), to help provide us with characters that we can care about. Even Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) reportedly helped polish the final version of the script. As a result, the movie feels somewhat pre-fabricated, as if it had been cobbled together from various sources, including large doses of The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen. In addition, the entire enterprise is wrapped in the American flag. Don't think it's a coincidence that this movie's first weekend in theaters will coincide with July 4th, Independence Day.
In case you haven't heard, Armageddon gives us an asteroid the size of Texas hurtling directly toward Earth at 22,000 mph and threatening to wipe out life on this planet: "Basically, the worst parts of the Bible," says NASA's executive director, Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton). To save the planet, NASA enlists the aid of a deep core drilling expert, Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis). Initially, NASA plans to send a team of astronauts to land on the asteroid, drill a deep hole, and drop in a nuclear device, but Harry discovers that NASA knows virtually nothing about deep core drilling. So Harry agrees to lend his expertise, provided that his team of deep core oil drillers do the actual drilling. "I just don't trust anyone else to do it," Harry says. And the drillers eagerly follow his lead: "The United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?"
With just two weeks before the big event, the drillers begin their training sesssions. They're a motley bunch--part cowboys, part lunkheads, part sexual perverts, part estranged fathers, and part All-American dream boys.
Huge-scale action flicks like this one usually tend to leave me cold, but Armageddon is a cut above the rest. Make no mistake about it, Armageddon is still a movie about special effects. The human characters are only on hand to help create the semblance of a story. But the movie uncoils in such earnest terms that the entire enterprise acquires a goofy brand of charm (not altogether unlike Independence Day, but with a bit more wit).
Occasionally it begins to succumb to it's overuse of the same old hoary cliches, such as the scene where the astronauts/drillers must disconnect a bomb: the clock clicks down to the last seconds as they ponder which wire to cut. "Blue? Red? Blue? Red?" Snap. Ho-hum.
In addition, the movie gives us pat good/bad equations. The military is clearly bad. Even the President can't be trusted. But rough necks who live outside of civilization are good and dependable (not counting Steve Buscemi's nihilist/pervert). The NASA experts might complain that the drillers definitely don't have "the right stuff"; however, director Michael Bay's camera says otherwise. It gives us slow motion shots of the drillers/astronauts walking toward the camera while the American flag waves in the background. If these guys don't have "the right stuff," then Bruckheimer is arguing that "the right stuff" is totally irrelevant (and maybe even a sham). Bruckheimer used this same bad-boys-as-heroes approach in The Rock and Con Air--and he cleaned up at the box office. So it's no surprise that he uses the same approach in Armageddon. He loves the cowboys and hot dogs of this world. And so, apparently do American audiences.
In spite of its sheer silliness, Armageddon is an incredible thrill ride. All the scenes that set up the confrontation with the asteroid are passable but unspectacular. Even the opening volley of meteors that leaves New York City pockmarked with craters feels a little too close to Independence Day for comfort. But once the astronauts/drillers begin closing in on the asteroid, surfing through clouds of space debris, the special effects take over almost completely and they're incredible. The asteroid itself is a twisted world of black spires and pennacles that is occasionally raked by meteor showers of its own.
Bruckheimer has also assembled a first rate cast, including Billy Bob Thornton as NASA's executive director, Liv Tyler as Harry Stamper's daughter, Ben Affleck as the youngest member of the drilling team (he and Tyler provide the love interest), Will Patton as a father estranged from his child, Steve Buscemi as an oil drilling genius with a taste for underage teenage girls, and Peter Stormare as a zoned-out Russian astronaut.
Unlike Godzilla, which quickly fizzled at the box office after an impressive start, Armageddon should rake in the money for weeks to come. It's destined to become this summer's Independence Day.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]