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By Richard von Busack

As Hitchcock said, the better the villain the better the movie. I recommend Virtuosity  despite its frequent clumsiness, for its good hero--Denzel Washington--and better villain--Russell Crowe's diverting computer-generated killer: a sort of Max Deathroom. Washington's Virgil Tibbs of the year 2020 is, for a change, good that holds up its end of the struggle between good and evil.

Director Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man ) once again leads the audience through the computer-generated special effects like a dog on a leash, but Crowe keeps you watching uncritically. The story is as follows, and bear with me. A virtual-reality game for the LAPD is being tested on convicts, one of whom happens to be an ex-policeman, Barnes (Washington), in prison for killing the terrorist who murdered his wife and child. When the villain of the virtual-reality game escapes into our world--a feat explained with some double-talk about nanotechnology--Barnes is deemed the best man to track him down.

The evil computer villain is a personality built from various mass murders, including John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson and some other luminaries; apparently, what you get when you blend them is a British version of Bill Murray. Why this is, I don't know, but "why" is the last question you want to ask this movie. Why introduce a plot device about Barnes having a bomb in his head, only to defuse it a few minutes later? Why is the back story so stupid? Why don't they flesh out the villain's need to find his origin, or just drop the matter completely, instead of having it hang there like the cliche it is?

And, here's the weirdest part: Why does Virtuosity  work fairly well? It's either the contrast with the wretchedness of the other current big-budget actioners, or else it's Washington, who is as convincing when he's cool as when he is hurt. He never seems dead behind the eyes, like all the other action heroes so far this summer. He savors his lines, and he has more than a few good ones, as when he requests his shotgun: "Reach there into the back seat and get me that crowd pleaser."

Kelly Lynch's policewoman is a fine foil for Washington, even if she isn't used enough. Crowe's various antics--such as holding a TV station hostage and broadcasting--play like Natural Born Killers  with a sense of humor. Too bad Leonard doesn't have a fraction of the taste of his stars; the obligatory chase scenes are about as thrilling as laundry day. In its more telling moments, the film suggests the dangers of passive spectatorship of television, computers, professional wrestling, whatever. Having no hope to being dazzled with such a big summer-movie's brilliance, it's the next best thing to be pleasantly baffled by its bullshit.

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