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At the Movies: ‘Armageddon’

June 29, 1998

There’s Oscar, the vaguely out-of-it surfer dude with the heart of gold. There’s Rockhound, the iconoclast and compulsive womanizer with the heart of gold. There’s A.J., the brasher-than-thou young man with the heart of gold. And there’s Harry, their fearless leader, the coarse roughneck with _ you guessed it _ the heart of gold.

They’re all roll-up-your-sleeves, get-down-and-dirty oil drillers, drilling away their lives on a rig somewhere in the Pacific. That is, until destiny calls. Then they step forward, unified, to save civilization as we know it ... from an asteroid the size of Texas.

Thus the premise of the frantic and portentous ``Armageddon,″ which isn’t so much an apocalyptic sci-fi epic as it is a buddy flick: Call it ``The B-Team″ _ Stephen J. Cannell meets Irwin Allen meets Isaac Asimov.

It’s not wonderful. But it’s a lot better than it could be _ crisp, fast-paced, visual without being effects-obsessed, and saved from summer-blockbuster mediocrity in large part by the manic ministrations of the always twisted Steve Buscemi.

The first question you might be asking is understandable: Is Summer Asteroid Movie No. 2 (``Armageddon″) any different than Summer Asteroid Movie No. 1 (``Deep Impact″)? The answer is a resounding yes. And each of them is worthy in its own way.

While ``Impact″ had the threaded-storyline feel of an apocalyptic ``All My Children,″ ``Armageddon″ is tightly focused on the, er, drill team charged with going up on a souped-up space shuttle, landing on the speeding asteroid, drilling 800 feet down and dropping a nuclear bomb in the hole. If all goes well, asteroid explodes and splits, hurtling away harmlessly, and Earth is saved for another Hollywood disaster movie.

Bruce Willis, his performance approaching acting more than usual for the genre, plays Harry Stamper, the leader of the baker’s dozen or so of old friends. Stamper is a prematurely craggy former Marine who’s good at what he does and knows it. He trusts only himself, which is his character’s major _ and apparently only _ internal conflict.

His daughter, Grace (the endlessly fascinating Liv Tyler, her father’s gratuitous appearance on the movie soundtrack notwithstanding), who grew up on oil rigs around the world, is in love with A.J. (Ben Affleck), a younger, angrier version of Harry who’s constantly clashing with the older man. The young lovers want to get married, but the asteroid and the mission come between them.

Buscemi plays Rockhound, doing what Buscemi did so well in ``Fargo″ and ``Reservoir Dogs″ _ whatever exactly that is; he’s one weird dude. And a restrained Billy Bob Thornton rises above the material to portray the head of NASA as a quiet hero determined to overcome the bureaucracy.

Rounding out the cast are solid performances from Peter Stormare (``Fargo″) as a disheveled cosmonaut who finds himself caught up in the mission; Will Patton as the long-irresponsible Chick, determined to show his young son he’s a hero; William Fichtner as the nails-tough REAL astronaut on the mission; and, most delightfully, Michael Clarke Duncan as Bear, a gigantic man who with Buscemi is handed some of the best lines of the movie.

As utterly charming as Liv Tyler is, and as affable as Affleck is, their romance just doesn’t work. The scenes between them are the most excruciating of the film _ except for some of the corny lines that burst forth from the Willis maw ( ``The United States government just asked us to save the world _ anybody want to say no?″).

Still, this is a laugh-out-loud-and-go-along-for-the-ride movie, a picture-show type of experience. It’s schlock, sure, but it’s fun schlock with good performances and good special effects and a reasonably brisk script. It pushes all the right buttons in two formulas _ action-comedy and adventure.

It’s a lot more for your eight bucks than ``Godzilla″ ever could be _ and does a much better job of destroying the Chrysler Building to boot.

``Armageddon″ is directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Gale Anne Hurd and Bay from a screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams. It is rated PG-13.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.