One thing Hollywood will never be accused of is subtlety. Find a newsworthy trend, social phenomenon, or technological advance (grunge? Gen X? the Internet?) and some ham-fisted movie will whack the topic over the head and beat the audience silly. In Virtuosity, the topic is virtual reality — the latest summer entry in the theater of cyber-inspired cinema. It’s also the one that clobbers you with the big gest special effects, the loudest soundtrack, and the most ceaseless violence, splatted and spliced to the quickest pace. To borrow a scene from This Is Spi¨al Tap: Where other techno-thrillers aim to reach ”10,” Virtuosity strains for ”11.”
The plot itself is simple enough: Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe from The Quick and the Dead and The Sum of Us), a simulated composite of the world’s most vicious murderers (Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, etc.) used in the training of law enforcement personnel, is liberated from virtual reality into the real world by his creepy inventor (Stephen Spinella, the Tony-winning star of Broadway’s Angels in America). And Park Barnes (Denzel Washington), a former cop now in prison for offing a terrorist who killed his family, is released to neutralize this infinitely mutable evil force (Sid can heal bullet holes and assorted amputations in a frenzy of morphing) — or else be returned to finish out his long sentence. Unfortunately, it turns out that the personality of the dead terrorist is also installed in Sid’s brainpan, and he’s pissed. So look out, Barnes.
That’s it. That’s the deal, pumped up with a lot of techno-cyber-gosh-whiz-nerd nirvana special effects under the direction of Brett Leonard, who also fiddled with tech chic in The Lawnmower Man. Washington, that talented and flexible actor, is wasted here (I believe the dramatic motivation he called upon was $7 million). Kelly Lynch — who, as a criminal psychologist in a pantsuit and heels, plays the requisite ”Be careful!” girl — is wooden. Crowe has a ball going over the top (with Kevin Spacey to thank as inspiration), but how much taunting and eyeball popping can a performer do? Mostly it’s the anonymous human techs in the back room, working for visual effects supervisor Jon Townley, who propel this nasty, brutish, long training film about what happens when boys spend too much time out of the sunlight, playing with expensive toys. D+