If crafting an exciting chase thriller were as simple as making sausage, then Chain Reaction, the new movie directed by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), would qualify as a fairly tasty piece of kielbasa. At a warehouse lab somewhere in the bowels of the University of Chicago, a team of noble scientists has devised a way to extract hydrogen from water, creating a limitless source of fuel. When the project is sabotaged by an explosion, Keanu Reeves, a whiz-kid machinist who had the bad luck of returning to the lab at the wrong moment, leaps onto his motorcycle, literally outraces the edge of the mushroom-cloud blast (the movie’s most thrilling image), and finds himself on the run from the FBI, which thinks he’s the chief culprit. On more than one occasion, he avoids capture spectacularly — wriggling over the perilous raised edge of a drawbridge, say, or leaping onto an ice boat and rocketing over a frozen pond. Go, dude!
In The Fugitive, Davis, a supremely assured craftsman, turned Harrison Ford’s escape from the wily forces of justice (i.e., Tommy Lee Jones in full-tilt cerebral glee) into a Hitchcockian odyssey of mental-logistical gamesmanship. Watching Reeves play a similar hunted man, you may think back to the earlier film and, for a few scenes, at least, kid yourself that you’re having the same sort of good time. But Chain Reaction is The Fugitive stripped of wit, twistiness, hair-trigger dash. Instead of two men fearlessly upping the ante on each other’s cleverness, we get Keanu Reeves, with his blank-souled stealth, facing down the umpteenth high-level conspiracy. It isn’t Reeves’ fault, exactly: He’s become a confident and likable action star, but he needs a script that does more than pair him with a pretty physicist (Rachel Weisz) and blueprint a repetitive series of escapes. Chain Reaction, while crisply shot, unfolds in an action-suspense-thriller void. The movie’s emblem might be the terse, bureaucratically impersonal performance of Morgan Freeman, who, as the energy project’s chief government liaison, manages to play the film’s most ambiguous character without raising its dramatic temperature one degree. B-