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Just two action-movie seasons ago, it seemed a little improbable that cinematic heroes could outrun explosions. Now this ability has become routine, so Keanu Reeves has developed a new superhuman attribute: Not once but twice in Chain Reaction the actor is overtaken by a massive blast and hurled violently through space, and yet is unscathed. These sequences are so Wile E. Coyote that you almost expect Reeves to shake himself off, slip back into his Bill and Ted guise, and marvel, “Coo-ool.”

Reeves doesn’t play a dude in Chain Reaction, however. He plays a nerd, Eddie Kasalivich, a Chicago laboratory machinist who’s helping “eccentric Renaissance genius” Alistair Barkley (Nicholas Rudall) with a project to create cheap, clean, endlessly renewable fuel from hydrogen. “The world is addicted to petroleum,” Barkley announces early in the film, thus evoking such silly energy-crisis-era thrillers as The Formula.

A scruffy, uncredentialed scientific genius of the sort played by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, Eddie has figured out the sonic frequencies that will make the hydrogen-fuel breakthrough happen. Soon after the first successful test, however, the research facility blows up, leaving Eddie and pretty young colleague Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) befuddled and then besieged. As in Speed, Reeves and his leading lady fall in love while unraveling a fiendish plot. And, as in director Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive, the hero must hit the road, falsely accused of a crime whose true perpetrator he must decipher for himself while he travels.

Eddie and Lily flee through Chicago and up to Wisconsin, pursued by an FBI team led by hard-boiled agent Leon Ford (Fred Ward). They also keep in touch with avuncular Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), the powerful and mysterious liaison between the Chicago project and a Washington-area foundation. Eventually, the duo travels to D.C., although this section of the film was clearly shot in Chicago: After a rumble with thugs in an unidentified museum (it’s the Field in Chicago),

a badly dubbed woman announces a police report of trouble at “the Science Museum.” (Presumably, the actress originally said “Smithsonian,” but the filmmakers thought better of this obviously phony cue.)

Finally, Eddie breaks into a military contractor’s enormous complex near Leesburg, which the filmmakers identify as the locus of American evil. (This, I must say, is about right.) As might be expected, some deft hacking is what’s required, although even the most powerful of Powerbooks won’t be able to prevent an explosion that dwarfs the one at the beginning of the movie.

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Since Chain Reaction is an underseasoned stew of paranoid innuendo about the CIA, defense contractors, and the big oil companies, some might call it leftist. In fact, though, the script is altogether too murky to reflect anything other than the vague middle-American notion that somebody somewhere is conspiring against the average motorist, taxpayer, or machinist on a project to create cheap, clean, endlessly renewable fuel from hydrogen. (It also should be noted that Lily is every bit as much the passive cheerleader as the useless female leads in the flag-waving Independence Day.)

The movie’s narrative muddle corroborates the reports that the screenplay, credited to J.F. Lawton and Michael Bortman but touched by many other hands, was in a constant state of revision as the shooting proceeded. Ultimately, the script has only one agenda: to convey Eddie from the opening explosion to the closing one. Still, Chain Reaction could be reckoned an example of the Hollywood variant of Communism: shoddy, compromised committee work designed to meet an impossible summer-action-movie quota.

In Joe’s Apartment, scheming U.S. Sen. Doherty (Robert Vaughn!) and a scuzzy real estate developer (Don Ho!) try to empty the last apartment building in a block of New York’s Lower East Side, so they can erect a high-rise maximum-security prison. The humor in writer/director John Payson’s comedy is rarely political, however. Mostly, in fact, it’s excremental.

The movie’s level of sophistication is established as soon as protagonist Joe (Jerry O’Connell) arrives from Iowa. Still within sight of the bus, he’s mugged. Then he’s mugged again. Then again. Viewers of Joe’s Apartment needn’t worry that they’ll miss an essential plot development if they blink, step out for popcorn, or—most aptly—go to the bathroom.

Expanded from a short film made for MTV, this underachieving (and long-delayed) farce puts its hero—an amiable, innocent slob—in the last occupied apartment in the aforementioned building, which is also occupied by some 50,000 all-talking, all-singing roaches. The action turns on real estate intrigue and Joe’s love-at-first-sight glimpse of another Lily, who wants to build a community garden on the property intended for the prison by the senator, who just happens to be her father. Most of the subsidiary gags, though, involve excretion: Joe gets a job collecting used urinal cakes for their manufacturer’s research department, the roaches do an Esther Williams routine in Joe’s toilet, and Joe wanders through Manhattan collecting manure (horse, dog, elephant) to fertilize Lily’s garden.

Wanna hear more? The first pal Joe meets in his new neighborhood is a conceptual artist, Walter Shit (Jim Turner), who offers him the drum slot in his band, Shit. And when the helpful roaches (whose animatronic leaders have the voices of Billy West and Reginald Hudlin) help construct the community garden, they build an artificial lake with a spurting toilet in the center as a fountain. That’s after they rap to the beat of a dripping faucet and a gurgling toilet.

Despite their hiphop number, the roaches are an old-fashioned bunch: In their choice of music and choreography, they owe more to ’30s Hollywood musicals than to such currently trendy East Village acts as Cibo Matto. The film is similarly retro: Joe listens to punk rock and reads such underground comics as Hate and Love and Rockets, but his flowery romance with Lily suggests Bed of Roses more than such contemporary boho fantasias as Trainspotting and Basquiat.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity is the characterization of Sen. Doherty, who is clearly more Pat Moynihan than Al D’Amato. Moynihan’s master-builder tendencies would be a great subject for cinematic satire. The only jibe the simple-minded Payson can muster, though, is to show that the senator is wearing women’s underwear beneath his business suit.CP