Oh, how I wanted to like Virtuosity. Even after seeing the trailer, which made it look like an extended chase scene (the trailer, it turns out, is accurate), I let myself get psyched about seeing two of my favorite actors: Denzel Washington, who was so crackerjack in Crimson Tide earlier this summer, and Kelly Lynch, whose post-Drugstore Cowboy career hasn’t blossomed as it deserves to. Plus there was Russell Crowe as the movie’s villain, Sid 6.7. Crowe has been in movies for a few years (he was superb in the Australian Proof, from 1992), but his star is only now beginning to climb; he was the young gay hero of The Sum of Us, and his first shot at an American crossover, The Quick and the Dead, didn’t make it. Which puts me in the odd position of recommending Virtuosity, a fundamentally lame movie. But if lots of you don’t go see it, Crowe will have to wait that much longer to snag bigger, better international roles.¹

Sid 6.7 is a virtual-reality serial killer, part of an experimental training program for cops; his evil-genius programmer decides to unleash Sid onto the real world. Enter Denzel, as Parker Barnes, an ex-cop turned convict (he went nuts and killed innocent people in the process of dispatching a psycho who’d blown up his wife and child). Barnes is the only one who can catch Sid, because Sid’s psyche is made up of dozens of hardcores, including the mad dog who killed Barnes’ family. So Barnes is let out of jail, with a micro-something implanted in his neck to track his moves (thanks, but I already saw Escape from New York). And that’s the movie. The composite-psycho premise is interesting; too bad nothing much is done with it. Sid should be fractured and schizo, but he’s just a superpsycho.

Director Brett Leonard has been down this cyber-road before, in his debut, The Lawnmower Man, another “look at the pretty computer-generated pictures” snooze. Virtuosity isn’t an obscure hipster mess like Johnny Mnemonic; a couple of the action sequences have a crisp, aggressive snap. But after about half an hour I failed to see the difference between this movie and fifty other cop-chases-killer videos I usually don’t want to rent. Washington may have taken the role so he’d get to play a dynamic, uncomplicated guy who runs and jumps and shoots — these days every serious actor seems to get Hamlet out of the way early and drive right into Stallone country — but he gives a one-note performance, and Kelly Lynch, as some sort of fancy psychologist attached to the v-r program, mostly tags along and weeps after Sid kidnaps her little daughter.

Russell Crowe is the only reason to watch. Looking uncannily like Bret Easton Ellis (a good joke in itself), Crowe turns in the sort of witty, raring-to-go psycho performance that magnetizes the camera and makes you wish he were in a movie that deserves him. Sid turns the world into his sadistic playpen; like David Warner’s Jack the Ripper in Time After Time and Charles Dance’s villain in Last Action Hero, Sid is alert to the endless lovely possibilities of his new stomping grounds. And, after getting blown away so many times in virtual reality, he’s tickled by the idea of payback. This is all in Crowe’s performance, because his dialogue is long on the callous, cheesy one-liners screenwriters always try to pass off as malevolent wit. If he doesn’t break out in this dumb movie aimed at cybernerds and jocks, he may have to do it in a movie that aims higher — but only if Hollywood gives him the chance.

¹ As it turned out, Crowe had to wait another five years. Between 1995 and 2000, Crowe made a variety of movies big and small — seven in all — and none of them worked for him, not even the good ones. He gave a powerhouse performance in L.A. Confidential that not enough people saw; he gave a blistering performance in The Insider that even fewer people saw, though it got him an Oscar nomination. (In an odd coincidence, he found himself pitted against former screen adversary Denzel Washington for Best Actor that year. Neither man won. Odder still, he and Denzel faced off against each other again in the 2001 Oscar race — thus making Virtuosity an interesting Oscar footnote in retrospect. Eventually the actors reunited in American Gangster.) Not until Gladiator in 2000 — ironically, a role any beefcake could have played — did Crowe finally become the toast of Hollywood (and an Oscar-winner) after a decade of working in films.

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