Picks and Pans Review: 12 Monkeys

updated 01/08/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/08/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe

The opening of this futuristic fantasy has an odd holiday prettiness to it. Willis traipses through a snowy, abandoned city at dusk, wearing a protective suit of bubbly plastic trimmed with miniature white lights, looking like some pop-art Christmas tree. Otherwise, Monkeys is one glum movie to release at this time of year.

It turns out that a virus has wiped out most of mankind, forcing the survivors to move underground—specifically, below Philadelphia—in 1996. Since Monkeys is the work of Terry Gilliam (Brazil), a director with an uncommon talent for creating striking visual designs from grunge and guck, what we see of this society are large, corroded steel bins that serve as a prison. One of the inmates is Willis, a violent but smart lug offered an unusual deal for parole. He must time-travel back to investigate the source of the outbreak, which has something to do with a league known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. But he touches down six years too early, promptly loses his temper, beats up a gaggle of cops and is locked up in a loony bin, where psychiatrist Stowe tries to analyze him.

Eventually, a romance—at times actually touching—evolves between Willis and Stowe, but everything moves way too slowly, given that the chief villain is a microscopic particle. Willis, called on to be brutal, cunning, dumb and sensitive, manages only one emotion per scene, and so gives four performances. Pitt, as Willis's ward-mate, makes a great, fiery display of tics and twitches. He's preening, and he should stop. (R)

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