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'Twister' dares viewers to weather storm of bad acting

Sunday, June 09, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Hoo-boy, they sure don't make TV movies like "Atomic Twister" anymore. And that's pretty much a good thing.

As the broadcast networks have stepped away from producing TV movies, viewers must rely on cable to scrape the bottom of the TV movie barrel. And not just any cable channel. HBO, Showtime, TNT and FX have earned reputations for high-quality original films. Lifetime has the market cornered on weepy, diseased women films. And TBS is the place for atrocious guy movies, which brings us back to "Atomic Twister."

TV Preview
"Atomic Twister"
When: 8 tonight on TBS.
Starring: Sharon Lawrence, Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

Not content to make a movie merely about tornadoes, TBS takes it, as they say, to the next level with tornadoes threatening a nuclear power plant. You can almost hear network executives salivating, "It's 'Twister' meets 'The China Syndrome'!"

"Atomic Twister" is a bad, bad, bad two hours of television (91 minutes when you don't count commercials) for all the reasons you'd expect: Cliched characters, horrible dialogue and bad acting that would make even James Lipton cringe. What's worse is the unimpressive tornado effects, which are few and far between. If you're going to churn out a cheesy TV movie, at least give viewers some eye candy to help gag down the rest of the mess.

A few people do get sucked up into twisters, but not enough to justify sitting through this abomination of the airwaves. The 1996 film "Twister" wasn't a great movie, but at least its tornadoes and the destruction they left behind were impressive. Here the aftermath looks like the work of a second-rate production design crew, which it probably was.

As "Atomic Twister" begins, single mom Corrine Maguire (Sharon Lawrence) and her son, Campbell (Daniel Costello), have just moved to a small Tennessee town where, strangely, no one has a Southern accent. She works as shift supervisor at the local nuclear power plant and her home is next door to the residence of police officer Jake Hannah (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).

Corrine gets upset because Jake invites various women in for sleepovers, and she just doesn't want her son seeing that behavior because Campbell idolizes Jake, and who wouldn't? He was Zack on "Saved by the Bell" for crying out loud!

Turns out Jake has been horndogging around because his fiancee, Ashley (Charmaine Guest), dumped him after he wouldn't commit to a wedding date. Making things all the more uncomfortable, Ashley's dad is Jake's boss, Sheriff C. B. Bishop (Corbin Bernsen). Imagine that!

Jake has other issues that haunt him. During the artful opening credits - the only artistic moment in the film - viewers see flashbacks to Jake's childhood. Everything is in black and white, save for a splotch of color here and there. A tornado whips through town and sucks Jake's mama up as he hides beneath a thresher. It's a traumatic event that you know Jake is destined to relive in this movie.

It only takes 20 minutes of "Atomic Twister" before the phone lines go down and the wind kicks up. Corrine arrives at the nuclear plant that appears to be staffed by only four people (unless Homer Simpson is asleep in a room we don't see). As she arrives, she's condescendingly kind to security guard Stu (Carl Lewis), so you know he's dead meat. There is some cruel humor in seeing Olympic track star Lewis attempt to outrun a tornado, if anyone recognizes him, which they may not.

As special effect tornadoes close in on the plant and rip through Corrine's neighborhood, she takes time for the important things in an action film: The speech that's supposed to move viewers but inadvertently launches us into gales of laughter.

"This is not going to happen on our watch, do you understand me?" she tells her three co-workers. "We are not going to let this happen!"

Coincidences pile up - Jake rescues Ashley, rekindling their love; an unimportant secondary character makes a sacrifice; Campbell has a crush on his babysitter and then gets the same look of little boy lust on his face when his mother hugs him to her chest - and the movie meanders to its end.

Filmed in New Zealand by director William J. Corcoran ("Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-De-Sac") from a script by Ron McGee (TBS didn't bother to put his bio in its press kit, probably with good reason), "Atomic Twister" is a lesson in Bad Acting 101.

Gosselaar, who would seem ripe for ripping since he has "Saved by the Bell" on his resume, actually acquits himself better than anyone. Even with wretched dialogue ("This isn't some ploy to get my attention, is it?" he asks Ashley after she's trapped in her wrecked car as it dangles over a cliff), Gosselaar seems to be having fun, not taking the film too seriously. He's not an ideal action hero, but he suffices for a cruddy cable movie.

Lawrence, on the other hand, needs to find a chapter of Overactors Annoymous, pronto. She's always had a nose for bad material ("Wolf Lake," "Fired Up") and frequently finds a way to make it worse. She succeeds again in "Atomic Twister," chewing scenery faster than the wind machine can destroy it.

Aficionados of bad TV movies may get swept up in the badness of "Atomic Twister," but for anyone else, this disaster film is just a disaster.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Sunday, June 09, 2002

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