Welcome back to the latest installment of The Keanu Project! Spoiler alert: Catweazle and the hundreds of other Michael Shannon fans lurking on this blog should stick around for a special surprise. Today we’re going to talk about the 1996 film Chain Reaction, starring Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, and Chuck Spadina. No no nope no, I don’t like it. Thank God Keanu’s agents rejected his suggestions of Chuck Spadina and Templeton Paige Taylor when he first came to Hollywood and they wanted to change his name, as he recently revealed on Fallon.
Chain Reaction was a follow up by the director of The Fugitive, whose name I’m not going to bother looking up because honestly, who cares. Unlike the “certified fresh” Harrison Ford film, Chain Reaction has a dismal 16% critics and 27% audience rating. Now, I think these scores are unfairly low, and if you also possess an affinity for the 1990s and the ability to overlook plot holes, then you, too, might enjoy this sci-fi(ish) action(ish) thriller. Chain Reaction had a budget of $55 million but made over $60 million, so while not a success, it didn’t fail either. In fact, the San Francisco Gate critic called it “the summer’s smartest, most suspenseful thriller.” But even I think that guy’s an idiot, and just last week my boss showed me a check for $15K and I told him I’d eat it if he paid me $15. I mean, Independence Day came out that same summer (ID4 for the cool kids).
So Keanu plays Eddie Kasalivich, an undergraduate machinist at the University of Chicago who’s working with a team on a project to separate hydrogen out of water in order to create a new energy source to end our deadly dependence on fossil fuels. (Keanu was 31 at the time, so he insisted on having long hair in the movie because he thought it made him look younger.) The team isn’t having any success shooting lasers into water until Eddie accidentally discovers the perfect sound frequency to keep the hydrogen energy particles stable. I almost fell asleep writing that.
But! Surprisingly enough! This mumbo jumbo is actually rooted in real science! Unlike calculus, which is confirmed hocus pocus; if I wanted to know the slope of a point on a line, I’d jump off a bridge instead. According to an LA Times article about the movie, it is possible to convert sound energy into light energy. Sonoluminescence something something temps hotter than the surface of the sun something something. All this science stuff happens in the first ten minutes, and the movie really starts after the groundbreaking discovery when the professor in charge vows to share the technology with the world for free.
Since Keanu/Eddie is a nice guy who opens car doors for ladies, he escorts a drunk Rachel Weisz (playing a young physicist) home on the bus before returning to the lab to pick up his motorcycle. He discovers his murdered mentor and sees that the whatever machine is about to blow up, so he takes off on his bike and outruns an explosion that levels eight city blocks. While the soundtrack for this movie is extremely dated, the special effects are pretty okay. They built a model using miniatures, blew it up in the desert, and added Keanu using a green screen. (The elevator scene at the beginning of Speed was also filmed using miniatures, but we’ll get there in due time).
Once Keanu exposes the explosion as a crime, the bad guys frame him and Rachel, forcing them to go on the run. They turn to Morgan Freeman for help, not realizing he’s actually involved in the conspiracy. This isn’t a spoiler because they make it so obvious that he’s a bad guy right away (he’s holding an unlit cigar in every scene, for God’s sake), but in a mild twist, he’s not the baddest bad guy.
Rachel gets kidnapped, Keanu tracks her down and summons the FBI for reinforcement with what must be the best email in movie history and that includes You’ve Got Male, which is 80% shots of emails. [Update: Whoops, I meant this not this.]
Michael Shannon in one of his earliest movie roles has a 30-second cameo as a flower delivery guy, there’s another big explosion, Morgan Freeman gets away and Keanu and Rachel survive. The movie hints at a romance between them, but never shows so much as a kiss. My favorite part of the movie comes after all the credits roll, when there’s a quick shot of an explosion and someone off camera says “Whoa.” I like to think that’s an homage to Keanu’s catch phrase.
This one’s for all the Michal Shannon fans in the crowd, there’s hundreds of you here, we learned that in the Tournament of Hotties!
Fun fact: Rachel Weisz has said that Keanu is one of the most intelligent and profound people she’s ever met. He’s also incredibly well-read, and known to recite Shakespeare from memory when preparing to shoot a scene. At the time of filming, Keanu was reading a biography about Einstein and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Another interesting fact about his life is that around the time this movie was made, he was living at the Chateau Marmont hotel on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip with just one suitcase (he stored his books at his sister’s house). In what is surely the cruelest irony in my existence, just four years later the bar attached to that hotel would become the first of the three “Cheers” I’ve had in my life. I hung out at Bar Marmont nearly every night for a few years and never crossed paths with Keanu. I can’t remember the address of most of the places I lived, but I still know that Bar Marmont was located at 8171 Sunset Boulevard.
The plot of Chain Reaction is muddled and riddled with problems, but I still think it’s a fun ride. Apparently Keanu signed on before there was a script and there were multiple writers and editors involved, which shows in the final product. I like that there were a few jokes in the script, because I am adamant that humor is an essential component of a good action movie. For example, Keanu has an exciting chase scene that involves running up a bridge that is being raised for a boat to pass through before he shakes the feds and meets Rachel at the train station. The conductor asks what took him so long, because he saw Rachel waiting for someone, and Keanu says “The bridge was up.”
A chase scene on ice in a boat! Lots of chasing in this movie!
Overall, if you enjoy chase scenes and can ignore several stupid decisions made by some brilliant scientists on the run, you should watch this movie. I firmly believe we should all endeavor not to think too hard about things, especially action movies, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, and share your recommendations for chase movies in the comments!