Quick, what’s the ultimate thriller cliche? A smash-and-grab car chase through the streets of some twisty metropolis (say, Vienna)? A truck dangling off a bridge? A zipper-lipped team of military honchos barreling through the halls of power in order to stop a terrorist from threatening the security of the world? None of those, I’d argue, is quite ultimate enough — though, rest assured, you get to see every one of them in The Peacemaker, the first feature to emerge from the gates of DreamWorks Pictures, the recently launched Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen mega-studio.
No, for the truly quintessential thriller cliche, you’d have to reach for something like this: The heroes trying to stop a bomb from going off, with the film cutting back and forth between their sweaty, down-to-the-wire electronic tinkering and the bomb’s telltale timer. This routine was already being tweaked when it was employed, in 1964, as the climax of Goldfinger (remember how the bomb’s ticking clock finally froze on the number 007?), and it has been recycled countless times since. Yet here it is, once again, in The Peacemaker. (Any bets on whether they’ll defuse the bomb in time?) The film may be telling us to get excited — or, more accurately, it may be telling us that we’re more excited than we are — but thanks to the inviolable law of cliche, the essential spark of surprise is missing. The mechanics of ”breathless” suspense are blanketed by an atmosphere of creeping caution.
In The Peacemaker, Nicole Kidman, as a scientist who heads the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, and George Clooney, as Bruce Willis — I mean, as a daredevil intelligence officer with the Army’s Special Forces — team up to stop a Russian general who has swiped 10 nuclear warheads, one of which has been promised as payment to a Bosnian terrorist. What does the terrorist intend to do? Well, let’s just say that he’s angry and that he wants to blow up something really important. (He wants you to feel his pain.) In the opening sequence, paramilitary soldiers of evil slither onto a train in Russia’s Ural Mountains and abscond with the nukes, setting off one of the warheads in order to cover their tracks. The director, Mimi Leder, making her feature-film debut after having directed celebrated episodes of ER, stages all of this with crisp exactitude, and with a pleasing flair for ”rhythmic” visual detail. The plume of whitish gray smoke that rises from the train and blends into the mountainous dusk, the infrared eyes on the masks of the villains, the Ivan the Terrible choir on the soundtrack — all these atmospherics are elegant and accomplished.
They’re also not very thrilling. We know that we’re watching the setup, a mere prelude to the real movie, but Leder stages it with an air of self-important solemnity that borders on the overblown. The Peacemaker is a well-crafted, utterly generic genre piece that, in its slick, seamless impersonality, seems untouched by human hands; it feels less like a movie than a machine. In recent years, such crack entertainments as Speed, Crimson Tide, and Air Force One have proved that a formula picture needn’t feel like one. All that’s required is wit, brio, and curlicues of the unexpected. The Peacemaker, though, features ersatz wit, and it lumbers just when it should build. We’re meant to be gripped by the terse romantic chemistry between the two stars — Clooney the stud agent who shows his partner that you have to break the rules, Kidman the cleaned and pressed bureaucrat who teaches him a thing or two about caution. (Is it my imagination, or is Kidman’s beauty getting paler with each film?) But Clooney, looking like a smirky Oliver North, gets stuck tossing off stale jingoistic-hipster insults like ”The Russians couldn’t find snow in the middle of f—in’ winter!” Kidman has even less to do. She’s the costar as pretty scenery.
A good villain, of course, can go a long way toward invigorating a thriller. But when we meet The Peacemaker’s nuclear terrorist, he turns out to be a variation on the ancient stereotype of the ”cultured” Euro-sadist. The film’s idea of a life-size bad guy is, in essence, Jeremy Irons with more whining. In The Peacemaker, nothing escapes the taint of cliche. As the inaugural feature from DreamWorks, the picture is vaguely depressing, because it suggests that the studio’s creators are working so laboriously to manufacture a hit that they’ve forgotten to put in the dream. C+