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By Joe Leydon

JULY 6, 1998:  Armageddon is the second and presumably last of the summer blockbusters about a possible collision between Earth and a giant hunk of rock. Much like its predecessor, Deep Impact, the new film sends brave astronauts off to demolish the oncoming asteroid with a nuclear device. But since this is a movie by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, the same guys who gave us The Rock and Bad Boys, smaller weapons also figure into the plot. Indeed, at one point, the most impetuous of the astronauts is able to blast away at the scenery with a few rounds of automatic-weapons fire. And this, mind you, is during an interlude of what passes for comic relief.

Punishingly loud and dizzyingly frenetic, Armageddon is aimed squarely at audiences who share Bruckheimer's view that, if your ears aren't ringing and your pulse isn't pounding, you can't be having a good time. (Bruckheimer's resume, it should be noted, also includes Con Air and Crimson Tide, parts of which are shamelessly recycled here.) Speaking as someone who savors each burst of choreographed mayhem in every John Woo movie, I must admit there is much to be said in favor of movies that emphasize full-tilt, high-velocity action. Trouble is, when something assaults your senses as relentlessly as this movie does, one is left feeling exhausted, not exhilarated, and maybe even in the mood for a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. Sitting through Armageddon is a bit like taking 20 or so consecutive rides on a rollercoaster. After a while, even the thrills get to be repetitious and annoying.

The high-concept plot calls for a NASA chief (Billy Bob Thornton) to recruit Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis), the world's best deep-core oil driller, as the last best hope for mankind. Stamper's mission, should he decide to accept it, will be to ramrod the effort to plant a nuke deep inside a killer asteroid described as "the size of Texas." Stamper accepts the job - but only if can he ditch the astronauts assigned to the project, and bring along his hand-picked team of rowdy roughnecks.

In the real world - a place that Armageddon seldom approaches - Stamper would likely be taken into a back room and "convinced" to get with the program. But this is just a movie and, more important, Stamper is played by Bruce Willis. Quicker than you can say The Dirty Dozen, Stamper's buddies are brought to Houston to join him in an accelerated astronaut-training program. The motley crew includes an overweight loony, a dim-witted innocent, a bad-ass ex-convict, a bug-eyed wise guy - did somebody say Steve Buscemi? - and a relatively well-adjusted fellow who wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged wife and child. Stamper also invites along hot-headed A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck), in spite of - or maybe because of - the younger man's romantic involvement with Stamper's beautiful daughter (Liv Tyler).

The actors try hard - in a few cases, a little too hard - to flesh out their one-dimensional characters. Willis, shrewdly underplaying without dimming his star power, makes the most of his thinly written role. But even he gets lost in the rush once Armageddon blasts into space and begins to resemble nothing so much as an big-screen video game. The pace is fast, furious and often confusing. And while some of the special effects are quite impressive, other scenes manage to look ridiculously expensive and transparently fake all at once. Deep Impact wasn't a masterpiece, either, but at least it had a few glimmers of intelligence, and flashes of heart and soul. Armageddon has only sound and fury, and that's not nearly enough.


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