The End of the World as We Know It?

No problem. Bruce Willis has his sneer handy.

Directed by Michael Bay
Buena Vista Pictures

Out of Sight
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Universal Pictures

It cannot be said too often that the principal job of a modern mainstream movie critic is to distinguish smart formula crap from dumb formula crap. At one extreme are The Truman Show and Men in Black, at the other Godzilla and the dire Six Days, Seven Nights, which squanders a plucky, Carole Lombardish turn by the scrumptious Anne Heche. There’s an especially virulent subdivision of the above: smart formula crap that makes the viewer dumb. To this category can be assigned the new Armageddon, a blow-you-out-of-your-seat blockbuster that’s sure to make you laugh, cry, thump your chest like an ape, and call your broker to buy shares of Disney stock. Count on lethal asteroids to replace UFOs in the Zeitgeist Watch; actor Steve Buscemi’s asking price to triple; and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to end up back where he was in the era of Top Gun (1986), before his dead partner, Don Simpson, blew the duo’s credibility on cocaine, cars, and call girls. How dumb did Armageddon render this reviewer? So dumb that he’s giving it a good review.

With reservations, of course. Simpson-Bruckheimer movies (the spirit of Simpson hangs over Bruckheimer products like a chemical spill) push every button pushable, including some you never knew you had. The aim is to get you pumped, bellowing, pogoing backward up the aisle playing air guitar. Armageddon is one killer climax after another. Will New York City survive the shower of meteors that launches the picture (spectacularly)? Will deep-core driller Bruce Willis murder smarmy sidekick Ben Affleck when he discovers the lout in bed with his dishy daughter (Liv Tyler)? Will Willis accept the job proffered by Billy Bob Thornton to rocket to the incoming asteroid (the size of Texas), drill 800 feet beneath its crust, drop an A-bomb, and get the hell out of there? Will his team make it off the ramshackle Mir space station in one piece? Will both shuttles manage to land on the asteroid through a shower of (3-D, surround-sound) debris? Will their drills penetrate the iron surface? Will they stop the Army from detonating the nuke before they reach 800 feet? In the tradition of screenplay guru Robert McKee, the stakes in every act are ratcheted up. Where there’s a cliff, there’s a hanger.

Well, Armageddon worked for this lab rat. The electrodes were cannily placed, the jolts administered at regular intervals. Along with the rest of the audience, I jumped when I was meant to jump, laughed when I was meant to laugh, and swallowed a lump in my throat when I was meant to feel moved. It’s true, little irritants kept creeping in. It gets harder and harder to like Affleck, especially when he plays dumb guys by putting every line in the same generic, working-Joe italics. Liv Tyler is a lollipop for the eyes but doesn’t speak, dress, or move like someone raised on a deep-sea oil derrick. (Of course, after getting away with Kelly McGillis’ flight instructor in Top Gun and the 22-year-old Nicole Kidman’s brain surgeon in Days of Thunder, Bruckheimer can probably be forgiven a certain cockiness.) The post-coital Affleck dancing an animal cracker on Tyler’s bare middle recalls Tom Cruise dancing a Sweet’N Low packet on Kidman’s bare thigh: See the naked starlet, buy the product. A few trident missiles in this lefty’s side: knee-jerk invocations of God and Flag; jabs at Greenpeace; Charlton Heston delivering the clenched-teeth opening narration; Willis’ climactic exhortation to “Chew this iron bitch up!” Still, there are few villains as apolitical as a giant asteroid. We can all agree that it would indeed be a good thing to chew that iron bitch up.

Director Michael Bay (The Rock) has whiplash comic timing, and he can certainly do spectacle: The opening bombardment of Manhattan is riotously well edited, and so is … well, without giving too much away, we won’t always have Paris. It’s too bad that Bay has to hard-sell every shot. His pacing is strictly for the Ritalin generation, and his car-commercial compositions make the movie seem even more synthetic. The asteroid itself is disappointingly undercharacterized, and Bay compensates by turning every frame into a blur of motion. You can’t really see what the drillers are doing–not even maverick Affleck, in his big “I can drill this!” number. Armageddon is awesome, dude, but it’s, like, short on awe.

S till, I can’t dislike a picture in which, when all seems lost, the hero turns to the Mission Control camera and says, “Prepare the world for bad news.” Willis has become a master of doing nothing, of finding just the right (and most noncommittal) combination of facetiousness and sincerity. He can deliver zingers, and he can also invoke the Almighty. He can call himself a “third-generation driller,” add that “drilling is not a science, it’s an art,” and not be laughed off the screen. He’s the perfect mascot for a have-it-both-ways hip/square disaster epic, which parodies The Right Stuff machismo and wants you to buy into it at the same time (which is true, come to think of it, of The Right Stuff itself). The yucks come thick and fast until the motley, comic-relief crew starts getting blown away in the line of duty, and then it’s time to get patriotic.

In the end, it’s Buscemi’s movie. As the horniest, most sardonic member of Willis’ team, he has the funniest lines, and his wormy, dyspeptic grin sits on the world’s most ingratiating skull head. Buscemi knows how to act on the fly, which is essential in a Michael Bay picture if you want to be more than a splotch on the screen. As streakers go, he makes more of an impact than the asteroid.

Out of Sight is slick in all the right ways. It starts with a disorienting series of shock cuts, during which George Clooney tears off his tie, marches through traffic into a bank and, without a weapon or a plan, pulls off a charmingly effortless robbery foiled only by a bad starter on his wreck of a car. By now (only 10 minutes into the picture), the director, Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, andvideotape), has the audience in a happy, receptive state–not quite knowing what to expect and delighted to find itself in such clever hands. The later, whimsical novels of Elmore Leonard have been all too put-downable, but Soderbergh contrives the perfect voice for Leonard’s prose–laid-back and grooving when it needs to be, but also taut, with the eerie foreboding of violence about to erupt. He has evolved into a first-rate commercial director.

The movie’s zigs and zags are too entertaining to divulge, but it’s permissible to say that Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, as a Miami-based government marshal, meet cute: She gets shut up with him in the trunk of a getaway car and is hostage to his chatter about movies, a life of crime, and how he wishes he had met her in a bar so he could have picked her up. Clooney is a handsome rogue and knows it. He’s starting to go to seed, though, which makes him vulnerable–especially to Lopez, a smart, ripely beautiful actress who projects a disarmingly high opinion of herself. No phony demureness here: She acts as if she came of age telling an endless parade of Latin men where to put it. When she succumbs to Clooney’s Irish allure, you know there’s going to be a “but.”

Produced by the same team that made Leonard’s Get Shorty, Out of Sight is stuffed with amazing actors, among them Ving Rhames as Clooney’s buddy, Don Cheadle as a mercurial psychopath and, in unbilled cameos, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson Jr. Best of all is Albert Brooks as a multimillionaire financier who meets up with Clooney when he’s thrown in prison for felony fraud. Brooks studs his familiar, sad-sack persona with hard shards of ruthlessness and opportunism. Like this terrific confection, he never melts.