'Velocity' has stunts instead of a story

September 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Faster than a speeding moron, able to leap all forms of logic with a single bound, more powerful than an agent with three major stars in his stable, here's "Terminal Velocity." It's absolutely untainted by thought and unblemished by distinction but still kind of fun. I liked it when the guy parachuted into the windmill. That was cool.

This may be the first in a horrifying new genre of thrillers known as post-"Speed" narratives. That seminal money machine may have driven the final stake into the heart of conventional narrative: It proved for all and sundry how bereft of subtext a story could be, how shorn of such futzy old-fashioned delicacies as "character" and "sense," and still make a potful of money. All it had to do was deliver some brilliant thrills, which it did.

"Terminal Velocity" is a similarly constructed, similarly bereft and similarly shorn, if a bit less efficient, thrill machine. It exists primarily to goose your adrenal glands while picking your pockets; it has no interest in any other organs you may possess, and it doesn't take plastic.

The movie is built around poor, clueless Charlie Sheen, as an extremely glum devil-may-care skydiving instructor who one day takes beautiful student Nastassja Kinski up and watches to his horror as she hits the earth and bounces like a bad check. Naturally, the consequences are unpleasant, and of course the movie is much more concerned with him than with her. The FAA is not amused. A pitiful but dogged federal prosecutor (James Galdofini) may put him in the hoosegow for manslaughter.

Of course, since it's the star that's made kissyface with the earth at 120 per, and since only Hitchcock had the audacity to kill a star in the first reel ("Psycho"), you can be pretty sure Kinski is going to turn up again. Which she does (the gimmick is unconvincing), after elementary investigation by Sheen, whose entire performance consists of looking as if he's just been handed a physics test when he's a shop major.

But that same look might be found of the face of screenwriter David Twohy when he saw what director Deran Sarafian had done to his script. If it made any sense at all on the page, it not only makes no sense on screen, but it lacks any evidence that anyone much cared about sense or could even get the right answer on a multiple-choice definition question involving "sense."

The "plot" is dealt with in a few cursory seconds and appears to have something to do with a shipment of Russian gold hijacked for someone for a nasty purpose, which never ever becomes clear. Kinski, working for the KGB, is trying to get the gold back; three or four picturesque mouth-breathing bad guys are trying to get it away from her. Airplanes are involved.

The movie does a lot with newly developed methods of combining film stock, giving some of the tricks an amazing believability. It looks for all the world at one point as if Kinski and Sheen hop aboard a conveniently placed jet sled, blast off to 350 miles per hour, then eject just before the sled meets the end of the road. It enables Sheen and Kinski to 'chute in tandem through the whirling blades of a nest of windmills bristling on a ridge, like refugees from a Ginsu knife commercial. And finally and best of all, it unleashes one "Speed"-scale stunt, in which Kinski is locked in the trunk of a car and Sheen must crawl back to release her. Is the car moving? Yes, but not across -- rather, it's vertically, having been dumped from an airplane.

Some of the banter between Kinski and Sheen is highly amusing, and the thugs exude a sweaty aura of menace. But, stunts aside, not one single second of "Terminal Velocity" is believable. Even when it said "The End," I thought they were lying.

"Terminal Velocity"

Starring Charlie Sheen and Nastassja Kinski

Directed by Deran Sarafian

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated R

**

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