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`Article 99' Hits Hard

Film addresses pitfalls of VA hospitals with anger - and humor

IMAGINE a movie about young doctors struggling to save lives surrounded by suffering, confusion, and chaos. And now imagine that the movie's a comedy, with outrageous laughs amid the suffering, confusion, and chaos.

If this reminds you of "M.A.S.H," you're not alone. And both versions of "M.A.S.H.," at that: the 1970 Robert Altman film with Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould and the long-running television series with Alan Alda as a wartime doctor battling the pain and carnage of war.

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"M.A.S.H." was about the Korean war, though. This is 1992, and there's no war going; even the Persian Gulf conflict produced few American casualties. What the United States does have plenty of is veterans of past wars. And quite a few of them are crammed into Veterans Administration hospitals where, some people charge, funding cuts and bureaucratic snarls make patients wait too long for insufficient care.

"Article 99," a new movie from director Howard Deutch, addresses the shortcomings of VA hospitals with an anger, energy, and humor that strongly recall the "M.A.S.H." film. Kiefer Sutherland is even on hand to remind us of his father, who starred in the original. "M.A.S.H." is a good movie to imitate, though, so I'm not complaining about the similarities.

"Article 99" begins when young Dr. Morgan, played by young Mr. Sutherland, shows up to do his internship at a VA hospital. He regards this as a brief stop on his way to a profitable private practice.

What he finds in the public sector is a building full of very sick people, being given paperwork and promises instead of medical care. Most notorious of all is Article 99, a government decree that acknowledges you need help, but says you'll have to wait, because other folks are in line before you.

The main ray of sanity in this dirty, disorganized place is provided by Dr. Sturgess, who has remained there instead of moving on to better things because he's committed to his most needy patients. He's so committed that he'll lie to get the tests they require, steal to get medicine, and battle the administration at the expense of his own career. "Article 99" shows the adventures of Dr. Sturgess and his not-so-merry band, which includes a surgeon or two, a psychiatrist, and eventually Dr. Morgan, who com es to realize there's more to medicine than the cushy practice he had in mind. Their chief enemy is the hospital's administrator, who really believes his cost-cutting measures are good because they fit the government's budget; never mind how much pain and death may result from them.

In addition to Sutherland as Dr. Morgan, the cast includes Ray Liotta as Dr. Sturgess, the gifted Forest Whitaker as one of Sturgess's kindred spirits, Kathy Baker as the long-suffering psychiatrist, and Eli Wallach as a patient who can't be cured but can at least be housed in the hospital, as long as phony tests and diagnoses can be arranged. Other characters range from a trigger-happy combat veteran to a militant fighter who turns crisis into revolution.

"Article 99" falls back on comedy cliches and Hollywood formulas at certain points, and I wish it had been supervised by a director more daring than Mr. Deutch, who relies on the cleverness built into Ron Cutler's screenplay rather than his own visual imagination. But the movie's anger is directed at a target that could use some shaking up, and its message is worth listening to closely. "Article 99" is the angriest, bloodiest comedy in many a year, and that's what makes it stand apart from most of the cu rrent movie crop.

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Rated R for violence and language.

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