Gone are the days when Hollywood studios were truly "dream factories," cranking out illusions with assembly-line regularity. Today's studios are less like factories than finance companies, doling out money to artists and technicians who do the hands-on work of filmmaking.
Yet the dream-factory image lives on, and in what may prove to be the most important show-business development of the 1990s: DreamWorks, the first major studio since the '30s to be created from the ground up. Its products range from movies and TV series to CDs and computer games.
If the names of its founders are any indication, it could have a huge impact on American entertainment. Movie mogul Steven Spielberg, media executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music magnate David Geffen are three of the savviest - and most successful - figures in their field.
If the quality of its first movie is any indication, though, excitement could fizzle out fast. "The Peacemaker" is a warmed-over story told with little conviction and less imagination. It may pull in box-office dollars from die-hard action fans, but anyone hoping for fresh approaches is in for a disappointment.
"The Peacemaker" begins with a gang of greedy terrorists hijacking a trainload of nuclear weapons in the Russian countryside, setting off a blast to cover their tracks. Alerted to this crisis, two American experts - a brainy atomic scientist and a brawny intelligence officer - scoot from Washington to Eastern Europe and finally New York, tracking first the nuclear thieves and then a lone psychopath with a bomb in his backpack.
These ingredients are hardly original - ruthless villains, odd-couple heroes, ticktocking countdowns, colorful explosions - but they can still be effective if cleverly used. Sad to say, they seem more trite than true in the hands of director Mimi Leder, making her big-screen debut after years of "ER" and other TV shows. While she keeps the action hopping from one flash point to the next and cooks up a couple of exciting sequences in the last 30 minutes, she doesn't develop the narrative momentum needed to sustain a two-hour story.
Nor does she instill much inspiration in her stars. George Clooney was more expressive wearing his "Batman & Robin" mask than toting his military medals here. And whose idea was it to make Nicole Kidman a multilingual nuclear specialist? The same show-biz agent who pitched her as a brain surgeon in "Days of Thunder"?
The oddest thing about "The Peacemaker" is that DreamWorks appears to have cut corners on the production - a peculiar decision, given the importance of a rip-roaring success to inaugurate the studio. The budget has been reported at $50 million. That's about average for today's Hollywood, but a tad stingy for a picture relying on high-speed adventure and high-tech effects (always popular in the non-English-speaking market overseas).
DreamWorks may become more impressive when its next movies appear. Spielberg's historical drama "Amistad" promises to be another serious-minded venture in the "Schindler's List" vein, and the comedy "Mouse Hunt," starring Nathan Lane and Christopher Walken, sounds like fun.
But the fact that things may improve doesn't mean "The Peacemaker" is worth the price of a ticket. Older studios have barraged us with more than enough eye-popping chase scenes, strung-out villains, and movie stars outrunning fireballs. DreamWorks is overstuffed with money, talent, and clout. It should be aiming much higher than its dreary debut suggests.
* Rated R; contains much action-movie violence and a few harsh four-letter words.