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Hollow Man

A Must-See

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Andrew Marlowe and Gary Scott Thompson

With Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth Shue, Josh Brolin

One thing I don’t understand: why is it that the filmmakers behind Hollow Man, having already appropriated both the high concept and the subtext of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, didn’t go all the way and borrow the story as well? For all of the strengths of Hollow Man -- strong direction, nifty visuals, wickedly effective lead performances, and amazing special effects -- the film still possesses a curiously laid-back quality that often clashes with the high energy visual acrobatics.

The concept is pretty much identical to the one that Wells invented a hundred years ago: a brilliant scientist turns himself invisible. The subtext is also the same: invisibility is power and, thus, corrupts. But the story itself is less remarkable, beginning with the Hollywood version of scientific research (tons of bickering and mumbo-jumbo) and moving to an Alien rip-off, with an assorted band of rag-tag heroes confined in a dark maze, pursuing -- and being pursued by -- the title character.

Three things stand out. To begin with, there’s Paul Verhoeven’s direction. Verhoeven is clearly one of the top action directors currently working; out of his previous genre work (he directed Robocop and Total Recall) only Starship Troopers is a slight disappointment, and only because it tries to do too many things at once. Hollow Man’s direction is streamlined and elegant (if one can apply this adjective to a movie that uses many gallons of artificial blood). Just witness the two opening sequences: the opening scene with the rat provides a powerful jolt and functions as an extended metaphor to the whole movie; the second scene introduces the title character, completely defining him in just two lines.

Kevin Bacon, who plays this title character, is another high point of the movie. Usually considered a reliable-if-unexciting supporting player, here Mr. Six Degrees truly holds the screen, even when he is present only as a highly elaborate digital effect. This is a compulsively watchable live-wire performance, and every twitch of his volatile personality is visible on his face. His character arc, too, is by far the most interesting non-visual aspect of the film; the fact that it is thoroughly convincing is especially noteworthy.

Finally, there are the special effects, and they are extraordinary: the appearance/disappearance sequences are as detailed as anything this side of an anatomy textbook, and ten times as exciting. The multiple ways Bacon’s face is revealed in the second half of the movie are highly creative, beautiful, and disturbing at the same time.

On the flip side, we have the fact that, other than one single character arc, there is pretty much no story: all the action is centered in the same cavernous science lab, and the sense of mystery -- the main driving force behind Wells’ novel -- is dispensed with. The pacing picks up again by the time the extended action climax rolls along, probably because most characters behave more intelligently than expected.

As with the story, the acting (besides Kevin Bacon’s stellar performance) is somewhat lacking. Elizabeth Shue is adequate as the action heroine, even if her facial expression stays pretty much the same (as least her body language is workable). The second ostensible protagonist, Josh Brolin, doesn’t have anything whatsoever going for him other than the fact that he kinda sorta maybe looks like the younger brother of Pierce Brosnan.

On the whole, Hollow Man plays like a series of terrific set pieces, loosely connected by a “who-cares?” plot. But each scene, taken by itself, is never less than exciting -- and in this age, when the average Hollywood blockbuster vainly strives for coherence, this is an almost remarkable achievement.