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Red Alert
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by Jack Sommersby

"Before There Was 'The China Syndrome'..."
4 stars

This made-for-TV movie is just terririfc. It takes a grabber of a story premise and develops it superbly.

Suspense-filled, taut, entertaining, Red Alert is a first-rate thriller designed to keep you on edge throughout, and it superbly does just that from start to finish. Something's gone terribly wrong at a nuclear plant in Birchfield, Minnesota: a leak in the reactor has caused the water pressure to drop, thus destroying the cooling system and causing the country's Proteus Control facility's mainframe computer to close down the containment room, trapping and killing fourteen workers inside. But that's not the end of it, for the computer is also detecting radiation and iodine gas escaping into the atmosphere, and if the heat melts the fuel rods into the reactor, a full-scale, disastrous China Syndrome effect will be mercilessly unleashed. On top of this, the work of a saboteur is apparently at the root cause of it, and the only man who has a chance of stopping further havoc from being wreaked is Frank Brolen (stalwartly played by the always-welcome William Devane), a Department of Energy cop who must also battle his I-don't-want-to-hear-it superior in Colorado, who puts every iota of confidence in his baby, a thirty-million-dollar supercomputer, rather than human intelligence, to properly assess any gone-haywire situation. (Amusingly, in stark contrast to the terrifyingly, tumultuous situation the hero finds himself waist-deep in, his foray in law-enforcement duty just a few hours prior involved chasing and apprehending some teenage punks who broke into the building to steal typewriters.)

The director, Billy Hale, builds the suspense very economically, very tactfully; he knows the story he has on his hands is an innately frightening one that doesn't need uncouth pumping-up to get maximum enjoyable results, and this allows him to guide the narrative and build the suspense maturely. The screenplay, based on the novel Paradigm Red, interestingly employs various levels of conflict that keeps the audience on their toes, whether it's the cop against the saboteur, the cop against his superior, the cop against the local police in a jurisdictional dispute, the workers' families scrambling to a packed, frenzied airport in masses to get out of the city before it's too late. So while the crux of the conflict is intact, there's enough going on around the perimeters so not a minute of the running time feels like padding material. Red Alert is lean and swift and leads to an armrest-clinging finale with Brolen desperately clinging to a giant steel hook high in the air to keep it from unleashing a destructive force that'll wipe out the entire city and much of nearby Minneapolis. Even the most discriminating filmgoer won't be able to help being surprised and delighted by the proceedings that never makes a serious error and is engineered with flair and confidence -- unlike Hal Barwood's similarly plotted Warning Sign, it stays focused, doesn't go in for extraneous overdramatic bits, and gives proper emotional weight to the material. It's ninety-five minutes of pure pleasure that reminds that back in its day TV-movies-of-the-week could actually be as substantial as their cinematic counterparts.

A title worth seeking out for a buck or two in the used VHS bins at a half-priced bookstore.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14803&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/07/06 02:01:58
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USA
  18-May-1977

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