'Poseidon' avoids that sinking feeling

"Poseidon" runs a bit more than 90 minutes, and that's a plus. Movies these days, particularly big tent-pole franchise movies, are almost always overlong. The relative briskness of "Poseidon" ensures that things won't get bogged down. If a sequence is dull, you can be sure it will soon be replaced by another, and another.

And since most of the action in this Wolfgang Petersen melodrama is spectacular, there's little need to worry. Petersen has twice before navigated his way through these shoals, in his great U-boat picture "Das Boot" and the not-so-great "The Perfect Storm" (which did have that amazing monster wave to recommend it).

"Poseidon" has little relationship to the 1972 film "The Poseidon Adventure," except for its name and premise: a mammoth luxury cruise ship in the North Atlantic is hit by a rogue wave, rolls completely upside down, and begins to sink. I have a fondness for the original, which helped inaugurate the tsunami of disaster flicks, such as "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake," that followed in its wake.

Being bunkered for almost two hours with Gene Hackman, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, and the pre-"Airplane" Leslie Nielsen was camp heaven. It beats being trapped with the new movie's crew, which includes Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, Kevin Dillon, and Jacinda Barrett - a much more straight-faced bunch. "Poseidon" would have been better if it was over the top.

But Petersen is a rather humorless sort. He sticks to the bare bones of the plot and provides very little in the way of comic relief. The personal stories of the main characters are quickly sketched in and then set aside. Nothing impedes the forward momentum.

The festivities begin in the main ballroom of the cruise ship Poseidon on New Year's Eve. The ship stands 20 stories high, and once the wave hits and things go belly up, a band of stalwarts try to work their way through all 13 passenger decks in order to escape.

Robert Ramsey (Russell), a recently divorced former fireman and, improbably, the ex-mayor of New York, and professional gambler Dylan Johns (Lucas) head up a squad that also includes Ramsey's headstrong daughter (Rossum) and fiancé (Mike Vogel), a protective single mother (Barrett) and her son, and a stowaway trying to reach New York to be with her sick brother. Richard Dreyfuss plays a despondent millionaire who is taking the cruise solo because at the last minute his male lover jilted him.

Dreyfuss seems to be in the movie as a kind of good-luck charm. When he starts paddling frantically, he gives off "Jaws" vibes. (I notice in the press notes that Dreyfuss and some others involved in the movie took a cruise on the Queen Mary 2 for "research" purposes. Nice work if you can get it.)

Of course, not everyone will make it to safety, and one of the genre's pleasures - if you can call it that - is trying to figure out who will survive the flaming geysers and water walls and plummeting machinery. (Hint: Lesser-known names and people of ethnic origin tend to get offed first.)

Beyond being a showplace for crash-and-burn effects, "Poseidon" seems to be stumping for togetherness. The go-it-alone gambler Johns is made to discover that he needs the help of others in order to survive.

Now if only the bluebloods and the proles in "Titanic" had hooked up, that film might have had a happier outcome. Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of disaster and peril.

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