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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Movie review: Poseidon ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Are we ready for a remake of The Poseidon Adventure? If so, who besides Kathy Bates should get the Shelley Winters role? Will Hollywood allow an action hero with a sweaty comb-over, the way Gene Hackman had? Who will wear the go-go boots this time? And considering the Ugly Actor Relocation Initiative that Hollywood launched sometime around the invention of Botox, will they just write out the Ernest Borgnine character altogether?

Are we ready? Do we care?

Like we have a choice.

In Poseidon, the remake of the 1972 hit (and eight-time Oscar nominee), a 150-foot tidal wave slams into the side of a blinged-out 20-story ocean liner - a floating Trump Tower, and just as tacky. (The glowing, digitally animated introduction of the ship looks suspiciously like a commercial for a Disney cruise.)

The wave upends the vessel at the stroke of midnight, New Year's Eve, with the ship's ballroom packed with revelers dancing to Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, who dies a horrific death.

With up suddenly down, with the few survivors dancing on the ceiling, and the floor now above their heads, we notice windows are holding back the Atlantic. It's a tenuous spot to be in, a spot requiring leadership (a spot director Wolfgang Petersen, of Das Boot and The Perfect Storm, understands well, ratcheting up the claustrophobia), and so austere Andre Braugher takes the stage.

"Hello," he calls out.

Dead bodies litter the floor.

"I am your captain."

He's good at this, I thought- a natural motivational speaker!

"I am your captain and I am telling you that we have been hit by a rogue wave." And this "rogue wave" (do air-quotes when you say it) has damaged the ship, in case no one notices the way the piano is on the ceiling and that guy over there has a disco ball where his head used to be. Things look bad, he explains.

"Now for the good news-"

Now for the good news?

Ah, the Rumpled Tux Film.

You know, that woe-begotten genre, largely identified with the early 1970s - often referred to as a disaster movie - where society men and women are partying hard, in a stiff ball-and-gown sort of fashion, when suddenly their skyscraper turns into a Towering Inferno, their benefit gala is struck by an Earthquake, and their stately cruise is transformed into a Poseidon Adventure. Top buttons get loosened.

Cummerbunds come off.

Tuxes gets rumpled.

And bad speeches get made.

Bad speeches that sound galvanizing until another, tougher actor comes along to point out it's all just words and everyone is going to die unless we stop with these speeches. Enter Kurt Russell, who tells Braugher he's going to leave the ballroom and look for his daughter (Emmy Rossum), last seen on the disco deck. Andre tells Kurt that as captain of the ship he has the authority to force Kurt (a former New York City mayor) to stay put. And Kurt looks at Andre like "Oh no, you didn't! Oh no, you didn't just tell me I couldn't look for my baby!"

His glare says it all; indeed, Russell, in a recent interview, wisely pointed out that Poseidon could be one of the best silent movies ever, but it isn't practical.

Too bad.

But what insight - seriously.

What is a disaster movie but big emotions and big events and big characterizations that hardly require a lot of words? It's both the problem with disaster movies, and the definition of a true disaster movie - a movie about catastrophic problems we don't share, affecting people we don't care about, saying dialogue we never really hear anyway.

Poseidon, dopey enough to be a breezy flick about mass casualties, is the first disaster movie in a while to admit the limitations of disaster flicks.

That doesn't make it any better than, say, the dishwater dull Towering Inferno. But the big set pieces where the ship flips (and those sets look just like sets) are spectacular, and Petersen, true to his abbreviated title, removes practically every shred of background detail and characterization. He strips away, in short, the really boring part of most disaster movies: the lead-up to the disaster. He leaves us with a disaster movie that is, remarkably, only 98 minutes long.

Go! Now! Go! Let's get going!

"One of us has to do this!" Russell barks to the no-name actor standing before him, water rising around them. "One of us has to do this thing right now, and it has to be the one who has a fighting chance of making it!"

I mean, look at the marquee!

Roughly adopting Hackman's character, he leads, with blue-eyed Josh Lucas as first mate, a band of survivors who die in their prescribed order, so roughly sketched-in the film barely stops to give names.

In fact, I think we could just call them: Leader (Russell), Guy Who Knows Ships (Lucas), Guy Who Used to Be on the Swim Team (Mike Vogel), Young Mother (Jacinda Barrett), Small Boy (Jimmy Bennett), Gay Guy (Richard Dreyfuss), Latina (Mia Maestro), Waiter (Freddy Rodriguez), Idiot (Kevin Dillon).

The New Yorker's Pauline Kael wrote that the original Poseidon was "a waterlogged Grand Hotel." Which was a slam; but in that, it was a given there's room for pathos. If the old version is something of a camp classic, the new Poseidon tries avoiding its future fate by allowing in no feeling and rarely cracking a smile. It's an admirably speedy, professional spectacular. But when the cleavage never stops, the dresses never ride up, and a guy named Lucky Larry bites it bad - plug the holes and pass the popcorn.



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