Based on the shocking real-life possibility that one day an ultra-lethal, snidey little virus will sneak into the US and wipe out the entire population within 48 hours.
Based on the shocking real-life possibility that one day an ultra-lethal, snidey little virus will sneak into the US and wipe out the entire population within 48 hours, this thriller has an advantage from the off. It is a truly terrifying premise. And if director Petersen's execution does go a bit slack in its adrenaline-upped last quarter, and the script tends toward the corny, such a potent concept, star value and an utterly gripping first hour still make for a rollicking, nerve-rattling, hugely entertaining Hollywood shocker.
Hoffman, in an effectively unusual piece of leading man casting (Harrison Ford was the original choice), is the obsessive viral doctor Colonel Sam Daniels, a man who can virtually smell a bug. His intuitive nose has cottoned on to what could be the most devastating outbreak of all time. It starts with the host, a cute African monkey shipped to California from Zaire which infects a warehouse worker (Patrick Dempsey) and pet-store owner, sending the virus, Motaba, on its destructive path - a bug which has the nasty habit of dissolving people from the inside out within hours.
When the crisis finally erupts, the good doctor, his chief cohort and ex-wife Robby (Russo), and his team narrow it down to the small town of Cedar Creek - the notion of it hitting a sprawling metropolis like L.A. is way beyond the confines of drama - where they face up to the fact that the invisible bugger is now airborne. Petersen expertly wracks up the tension to a fever pitch. Playing on the classic infection paranoias, he reveals how simply and inexorably the disease spreads - in one devilish joke we get a microbe's eye-view of a germ ridden cinema. The fishbowl-helmeted team, fazed by their microscopic enemy find the missing monkey (whose blood carries the desperately needed antibodies) and an exhilarating helicopter chase. Sadly this is at the expense of the scientific tension and much of the movie's initial credibility, the virus having to take a backseat while Sutherland's overacting, fascistic, fright-free bad guy proves he's just as heartless as ten billion germs.
That said, Petersen pulls off the thrills at a stomach lurching pace, and with its requisite Hollywood ham - husband and wife reuniting over piles of haemorrhaging bodies - loud performances, crashing stunts and a fearsome, hypochondria-inducing conceit, there's barely room to catch your breath, let alone cry foul.