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Godzilla

movie reviewmovie review out of 4


*Also starring: Hank Azaria, Maria Pitillo, Michael Lerner, Harry Shearer, Arabella Field, Philippe Bergeron



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The next time someone tells you that irradiated food is harmless, send him to this movie. And if he doesn't get around to seeing it, no problem: you can be sure there will be a "Godzilla 2," or more accurately a "Godzilla 24," within two years. Though the well-known leapin' lizard never gained the popularity here of E.T., he has been the subject of over a score of films, mostly Japanese. They're the pictures which those of us lucky to be of a certain age thrilled to as early as the 1954 Japanese production "Gojira" directed by Terry Morse and starring Ishiro Honda and Takashi Shimura, with Raymond Burr later added as an insert for the American crowds. To no-one's surprise, critics agreed that the special effects were the star in that one. Nothing's changed, nor does TriStar attempt to market the current version as a character-driven story, unless, you of course, you consider a big green guy to be a character. Come to think of it, Godzilla himself is about the only believable character in the picture. He's certainly larger than life and acts better than Matthew Broderick, also to no one's surprise.

There's much to admire here, however. For one thing there's the fact that you can blame the overgrown lizard on French and not American nuclear testing. For another, there's an attempt at humor (there aren't many) by featuring Roger Ebert lookalike Michael Lerner as Mayor Ebert, a grandiose political animal whose comeuppance arrives near the end when his campaign chief gives him the big thumbs down sign. The fact that a good deal of Manhattan Island is destroyed is either good or bad depending on your geopolitical nature, though to appease real New Yorkers, Madison Square Garden comes in for total destruction as well. Yet another plus is the presence of Jean Reno, allegedly a French insurance investigator who, along with Godzilla, is the only credible performer--one whose antipathy toward American coffee and American doughnuts holds water and proves that two things in France are better than what we've got over here.

Filmed in Hawaii to stand in for French Polynesia and also on location in New Jersey, New York and California, "Godzilla" opens on a French nuclear test, whose mushroom cloud is looked upon with fascination by three cute lizzies. (Why only one mutates into the big beast is anyone's guess.) Shortly thereafter, research scientist Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), aka "the worm guy," is whisked away by State Department personnel from his Ukraine project investigating fat earthworms in Chernobyl to advise a group of military planners, politicians and scholars on a sushi-loving creature that has wreaked havoc with a Japanese fishing boat in Polynesia. He soon meets up with Audrey (Maria Pitillo), a former sweetheart who walked out on him eight years before, and with her two friends Luci (Arabella Field) and Victor (Hank Azaria), who work for a TV news station bossed by Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer). Advising the military that it's better to have the creature come to them than to try to dig him out of his New York hiding place, he gathers up thousands of fish as bait from the Fulton fish market and awaits the return. His reappearance provides just what the audience has been waiting for: the destructive force of a dragon-like heathen who, when he a tail unfolds, sweeps out one hundred windows on an upper floor of an office building and whose mighty claw crushes many of those who do not have a starring role in the movie. Meanwhile, Mayor Ebert has probably given up on the idea that anyone in his town will adopt the creature. After all, where would you get a pooper- scooper that's the right size?

Though the company claims to have re-invented the Godzilla legend by use of cutting-edge technology, the picture does not look a whole lot different from the one the Japanese made forty-four years ago. For good or evil, the kitsch is gone. Godzilla does look almost real, thanks to modern CGI (computer graphics imagery) that's de rigueur with high-tech companies that want you to buy a new model each year, but when he growls and moans, we feel kind of sorry for him. It's an E.T. thing. The guy didn't ask to be born like this and you can't blame him for leaving French territory where he would have been condemned--as Woody "Love and Death" Allen would say--to spend his life eating croissants and food with rich sauces. He did not travel by foot all the way to Manhattan to see the movie "Godzilla," nor was he much interested in Knicks games despite his visit to Madison Square Garden. And after all, he was probably aiming to get lawyers, not innocent people, when he swished out those windows around the Flatiron building and coaxed the military to bomb the Chrysler building.

Like Beethoven's Fifth, "Godzilla" has more than one ending. In the most dramatic, the lizard stages a one-day strike against a taxi, showing how easy it is to catch a cab in Manhattan if you're assertive enough.

To show sympathy or animosity toward the creature, huge audiences will surely throng to the 7,000+ screens in the U.S. for its opening on May 20, folks who might well overlook the competing "Bulworth" making its nationwide debut two days later. Never mind that Mayor Ebert cannot match wits in the slightest with Senator Jay Billington Bulworth--the best Hizzoner can do is to scream that evacuated New Yorkers should be let back into the city even while the monster is taking his paces in midtown.

Matthew Broderick, who shows empathy for Godzilla despite his frequent, frightened, wide-eyed gaze each time the monster approaches, is still Ferris Bueller--the boy next door you'd love to set up with your adorable, curly-haired blond daughter. The only human show-stopper here is Jean Reno as French agent Philippe Roache, still donning that four-day beard, whom you will recognize from his dazzling role in Luc Besson's "The Professional." He's the man who puts an artistic touch on the movie by forcing director Roland Emmerich to insert French subtitles. He does a mean job with a southern American accent as well.

Maybe New York, the country's most liberal big city, should rethink its mission to allow visitors in without regard to size, color, or manner of birth.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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