Contaminated Man (2000) review

Contaminated Man DVD artIf nothing else, you have to give CONTAMINATED MAN credit for laying all its cards on the table: as you might have guessed from the title, it is indeed about a contaminated man. In a world of information overload, where ADHD video viewers might have skimmed past something titled “The Budapest Crisis” (or some such) without ever knowing the nature of the crisis, you can bet that, thanks to truth-in-titling, said viewers can quickly make an informed decision about whether or not they want to watch a movie about a contaminated man. If they opt in, they have no one to blame but themselves – well, and the filmmakers.
In 1986 Los Angeles, lab researcher David R. Whitman accidentally infects his wife and child with a deadly disease. How David can live long enough to pass on the disease, while his family perish in mere minutes, is a question the film will save for decades later, when we find Whitman, who has understandably left his previous employer, cleaning up toxic spills in Budapest. Meanwhile, Joseph Muller (Peter Weller) confronts the boss who just fired him from his job as a security at a chemical laboratory; an altercation leads to Muller being infected with a disease suspiciously similar to the one that afflicted Whitman. Whitman is called in to clean up the mess and track down Muller, but the situation is complicated by the presence of NSA agents Holly Anderson (Natascha McElhone) and Wyles (Michael Brandon), who suspect that terrorism may be afoot.
CONTAMINATED MAN begins with a hint of promise. The initial deaths are shocking and horrific, and Weller manages to disappear inside his character, offering a convincing and sympathetic portrait of a man driven by desperate circumstances. (Muller’s loss of employment affects his ability to pay alimony, which negates his child custody agreement with his former wife.)
Unfortunately, the conflict between Whitman and Wyles is leaden, turning what could have been a fascinating contamination-procedural thriller (a la 2011’s CONTAGION) into a B-movie spy thriller without any real spy. Despite the NSA agent’s’ suspicions, it is clear that Muller simply wants to return to Germany to reunite with his family.The only question is whether Whitman can convince Wyles to stand down, and the answer is a not very surprising: no.
Hurt strives to find some dramatic gravitas inside the formulaic script; his character senses the parallel between himself and Muller and hopes to redeem the horrible past by saving Muller’s family from a similar fate. However, the overblown melodrama ultimately defeats the actor, as the film subverts its few good qualities with gratuitous plot twists and a “surprise” revelation that ties the prologue in with present events: back in ’86, the NSA deliberately infected Whitman as a test-run of the disease. This leads to the predictable conclusion wherein Whitman settles the score with Wyles, turning the attempted story of personal redemption into pulp-style revenge.
The disease – created in the lab as a bio-weapon – has a rather convenient set of rules in order to keep the plot running: the carrier can live for up to a week without symptoms, and there is a simple antidote; those he touches, however, die almost instantly. If that were not contrived enough, Muller realizes early on that he is contaminated, but he makes only a token effort at avoiding contact with others (e.g., he avoids shaking hands, but he doesn’t wear gloves, and he doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed that he risks infecting his estranged family). With victims dropping like flies, you wonder why it is so hard to track down Muller (who by the way is surprisingly durable and athletic for such an old guy – at least in long shots when the stuntman can take over).
Eventually, CONTAMINATED MAN descends to milking “suspense” from sequences that simply have none to give. Whitman is re-infected with the disease; we assume he has immunity from his previous exposure, but the film presents this resolution as a surprise. Later, Muller puts his infected blood in a remote-controlled miniature submarine (a toy intended for his son) and threatens to explode it in the local water supply if his family is not brought to him. This leads to one of the most absurd action sequences in the history of film, with Whitman and Anderson tracking and capturing the sub, then racing to keep one step ahead – and thus out of remote-control range – as Muller follows them. The fact that they are on a motorboat halfway across a huge lake, while Muller is running on shore, makes the outcome a no-brainer, yet the sequences is cut to suggest that somehow, Muller might overtake them.
Oh well, sillier films have been entertaining. But that requires a little pizzazz from the cast and crew, which is in short supply here. McElhone is miscast as Agent Anderson; we can’t blame her for failing to gneerate sparks with the much older Hurt, but her attempts to talk tough are so unconvincing that romantic chemistry is the only possible justification for her presence. Brandon makes Wyles a convincing prick, but he never rises to the level of villainy that would make him a memorable “man you love to hate.”
Director Anthony Hickcox (who made some quirky horror comedies in the 1980s, such as WAXWORK and SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT) does competent but anonymous work here. The effects of the disease and handled with convincing horror, but he never comes to grips with the screenplay’s absurdities, presenting them with a straight face when it might have been better to send them up.
Only Peter Weller emerges with his dignity and reputation intact. He almost sells the film, but neither the writer nor the director are smart enough to that killing off the heart of your story leaves a big gaping hole that needs to be filled by something other than chase-scenes and cheesy payback.
But then again, if you watch a movie as bluntly titles as CONTAMINATED MAN, why would you expect anything more subtle?