The Net
directed by Irwin Winkler
(Columbia, 1995)

If you have any doubts that the political paranoia of the '70s and '80s has given way to the cyber-scare of the '90s, lay them aside:

Welcome to the world of The Net.

"Net" is short for Internet, of course, home of 40 gazillion Web sites, some of which do not feature nude shots of Demi Moore. If the place wasn't designed for thrillers, its terminology was, and the movies are as caught up in it as anyone. Starting with Angela Bennett.

Bennett (Sandra Bullock) is a freelance computer analyst who dresses like Lamar Alexander but thinks like Al Gore. Her speciality is debugging computer programs, which she does from her modest home in Venice, Calif. There she maintains a quiet life of Fed Ex deliveries and online pizzas until she receives an urgent phone call from a client named Dale (Ray McKinnon), who wants her to drop everything and examine an insidious computer virus with 10 times the destructive force of Thai food.

But Dale dies in a mysterious plane crash before they can meet to discuss the virus, which soon afterward turns up in computer programs nationwide, crashing Wall Street, helping foul up medical records and delaying all flights from the L.A. airport, including Bennett's.

That's annoying because this is Bennett's first vacation in six years, though it doesn't offer her much rest and relaxation. In short order she is mugged, shot at, kidnapped, tormented and in general made to feel not at home. To top it all off, she discovers that with her purse has disappeared her entire identity, and the people who have it aren't much interested in giving it up.

So it's up to Bennett to get it back, with a small assist from her former shrink (Dennis Miller) and no help at all from a loose cannon named Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam). It's Devlin's job to see that Bennett doesn't get a chance to trace the virus back to its source or report her suspicions to the authorities.

What follows is a game of cat and computer mouse in which Bennett is hard-pressed to keep one step ahead of Devlin, whose favorite trick is sneaking into Bennett's electronic files to get her into trouble with the police.

All this would seem to add up to one top-notch thriller, except for one thing: It doesn't.

Director Irwin Winkler works hard to make The Net work. He gives it a look that's polished, but not slick, and a brisk pace.

Bullock is convincing, if not inspired; lip for lip she can out-act Julia Roberts any day. And Northam is right on the mark as the two-faced villain, playing both Jekyll and Hyde with insidious gusto. But Miller makes for a wobbly third wheel: It's hard to tell if he's doing a great job playing a shallow character or if his acting is simply shallow. And for all its computer wizardry, The Net offers little that's new.

In the end, most of the action revolves around car chases and small arms fire. Even the final encounter turns into a rooftop game of hide-and-seek more befitting a Kojak rerun than a cyber thriller.

If paranoia films are your bag, if you get off on mistaken identity, innocence betrayed, incredible odds and that ominous feeling that the whole world's turning against you, skip The Net and try Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.

It's everything The Net is not. It computes.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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