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''Twister'' is only the latest video for Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt

These 2 actors had breaks in ”Aliens,” ”Near Dark,” ”Mr. Saturday Night” and more

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”Twister” is only the latest video for Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt

When cows fly and big-rig tankers pirouette in the air, getting swept up in a movie’s special effects is a breeze. Clearing a commercial path as devastating as the meteorological phenomenon it depicts, Twister didn’t take in $240 million dollars this summer because moviegoers raved about its sparkling repartee. A couple of wry digs vented by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as divorcing storm chasers racing against a crass competitor to catch the wind are no match for suck zones ripping barns into splinters.

Like many high-tech blockbusters, Twister scarcely requires a plot to propel its thrills, and the mission-improbable script is as flimsy as the structures it dismantles. The family tragedy that makes Jo (Hunt) tornado obsessed, her romantic triangle with Bill (Paxton) and his new fiancee, Melissa (Jami Gertz), and the good guys’ buffoonish rival, Jonas (Cary Elwes), all amount to a hill of hail when computerized forces of nature plow a field or flatten a town, even if said effects deliver less audio-visual wallop on home-video system than they did in theaters.

The conventional wisdom was that Twister flew without benefit of major stars, but Paxton and Hunt are more than stand-ins for their stunt doubles. Each brought two decades of acting experience to the film, and both invest their characters with credible personalities as driven people who are uncertain of where they’re heading. Taking a look at earlier Hunt and Paxton movies on the video shelves, it’s easy to see why, despite some bumpy detours, they were well equipped for their roles.

The two first appeared together in Next of Kin, a revenge drama that didn’t blow anybody away. Paxton’s character gets bumped off in the first 15 minutes of this family feud between an Appalachian clan and the Chicago Mob, leaving brothers Truman (Patrick Swayze) and Briar (Liam Neeson) to hunt down the killer. Though Truman’s wife Jessie (Hunt) is left standing at the end, she’s no less of a stiff.

Sporting a blue punk hairdo, Paxton checks out even earlier in The Terminator, but that bit part led to other films (including True Lies) directed by James Cameron. As Private Hudson, Paxton saw plenty of screen time and action in the gripping Aliens. A model for many of his later roles as garrulous, cocky, but often misjudged men, this Marine of the future is a loudmouthed goof who’s not all he can be.

In the refreshingly original low-budget chase drama One False Move, Paxton plays a hick police chief who’s neither as dumb nor as innocent as he seems. Nicely balancing a savage performance by Billy Bob Thornton as an edgy killer on the lam, Paxton quietly reveals many sides to his cop’s story as the action closes in on his Arkansas town. Less subtlety was required for Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow’s stylish vampire thriller. As an ashen-faced bloodsucker getting more than his share of kicks on Route 666, Paxton brings rugged gusto and joie de gore to the afterlife.

Before the success of Mad About You, Hunt (who began her career in 1973 at age 9, with the TV movie Pioneer Woman) amassed dozens of film and TV credits, from NBC’s St. Elsewhere to Project X, a movie that made her third banana to a chimp. Hunt costarred in Trancers, an economy-class time trip from schlockmeister Charles Band, in 1985; but by 1992, when she made a ”special appearance” in its second sequel, Hollywood had elevated its estimation of her.

Hunt arrives late but smartly holds her own in Mr. Saturday Night, director-cowriter-star Billy Crystal’s comedy about a fading borscht-belt comic, Buddy Young Jr. Struggling to get a crotchety old man back to work before he runs out of road, agent Annie Wells (Hunt) shows the same pluck, stamina, and resourcefulness the actress would bring to Twister. Presenting a credible mix of affection and frustration, Hunt leavens the maudlin sentiment with no-nonsense determination. She walks an even harder mile in The Waterdance. Weaving emotional intricacy into the role of a married woman whose boyfriend (Eric Stoltz) lands in a paraplegic ward after an accident, Hunt allows cracks in her character’s resolve to develop slowly, putting a brave face on a difficult situation. Like Hunt’s tornado tracker in Twister, she grapples with life’s unpredictable nature and survives. Twister: B Next of Kin: C Aliens: B+ One False Move: A- Near Dark: B Mr. Saturday Night: B The Waterdance: B-