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DreamWorks' First Flick, 'The Peacemaker,' Disappoints Expectations

Gone are the days when Hollywood studios were truly "dream factories," cranking out illusions with assembly-line regularity. Today's studios are less like factories than finance companies, doling out money to artists and technicians who do the hands-on work of filmmaking.

Yet the dream-factory image lives on, and in what may prove to be the most important show-business development of the 1990s: DreamWorks, the first major studio since the '30s to be created from the ground up. Its products range from movies and TV series to CDs and computer games.

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If the names of its founders are any indication, it could have a huge impact on American entertainment. Movie mogul Steven Spielberg, media executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music magnate David Geffen are three of the savviest - and most successful - figures in their field.

If the quality of its first movie is any indication, though, excitement could fizzle out fast. "The Peacemaker" is a warmed-over story told with little conviction and less imagination. It may pull in box-office dollars from die-hard action fans, but anyone hoping for fresh approaches is in for a disappointment.

"The Peacemaker" begins with a gang of greedy terrorists hijacking a trainload of nuclear weapons in the Russian countryside, setting off a blast to cover their tracks. Alerted to this crisis, two American experts - a brainy atomic scientist and a brawny intelligence officer - scoot from Washington to Eastern Europe and finally New York, tracking first the nuclear thieves and then a lone psychopath with a bomb in his backpack.

These ingredients are hardly original - ruthless villains, odd-couple heroes, ticktocking countdowns, colorful explosions - but they can still be effective if cleverly used. Sad to say, they seem more trite than true in the hands of director Mimi Leder, making her big-screen debut after years of "ER" and other TV shows. While she keeps the action hopping from one flash point to the next and cooks up a couple of exciting sequences in the last 30 minutes, she doesn't develop the narrative momentum needed to sustain a two-hour story.

Nor does she instill much inspiration in her stars. George Clooney was more expressive wearing his "Batman & Robin" mask than toting his military medals here. And whose idea was it to make Nicole Kidman a multilingual nuclear specialist? The same show-biz agent who pitched her as a brain surgeon in "Days of Thunder"?

The oddest thing about "The Peacemaker" is that DreamWorks appears to have cut corners on the production - a peculiar decision, given the importance of a rip-roaring success to inaugurate the studio. The budget has been reported at $50 million. That's about average for today's Hollywood, but a tad stingy for a picture relying on high-speed adventure and high-tech effects (always popular in the non-English-speaking market overseas).

DreamWorks may become more impressive when its next movies appear. Spielberg's historical drama "Amistad" promises to be another serious-minded venture in the "Schindler's List" vein, and the comedy "Mouse Hunt," starring Nathan Lane and Christopher Walken, sounds like fun.

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But the fact that things may improve doesn't mean "The Peacemaker" is worth the price of a ticket. Older studios have barraged us with more than enough eye-popping chase scenes, strung-out villains, and movie stars outrunning fireballs. DreamWorks is overstuffed with money, talent, and clout. It should be aiming much higher than its dreary debut suggests.

* Rated R; contains much action-movie violence and a few harsh four-letter words.

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