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Formula Won 

You've seen it all before, folks

A spanking new season may be under way on network television, but at the movies, it often feels like we're trapped in rerun hell, thanks to such been-there-done-that efforts as Sweet Home Alabama and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.

It's sad to witness once-exciting actresses like Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie now wasting their talents in exceedingly generic studio products, and it will be even more tragic if Reese Witherspoon follows their lead. Witherspoon was a delight in last year's Legally Blonde, but I'm afraid the success of that film might mean she'll start turning her back on quirky projects like Election and Freeway (fabulous in both) and settle into a stereotypical rut.Sweet Home Alabama certainly lends credence to my fear: A lazy romantic comedy that apparently looked no further back than 1991's Doc Hollywood for its inspiration (yes, I know to younger viewers that represents "classic cinema," but trust me, it's not), this finds the actress basically mining the same Blonde emotions (albeit mining them well) in a picture that relies on the usual narrative props found in seemingly every other comedy these days.

Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a rising New York fashion designer who's just accepted a marriage proposal from the son (smarmy Patrick Dempsey) of the city's mayor (Candice Bergen). First, though, she has to go back to her Alabama hometown and get her first husband (Josh Lucas) to sign the divorce papers, something he's been reluctant to do. From there, everything plays out exactly as expected: Melanie rediscovers her spark with her down-home hubby; she's condescending toward her former friends until the sound of music (in this case, Lynyrd Skynyrd) reawakens her soul; Southern hospitality wins out over Northern arrogance; the sole gay characters, one depicted as fundamentally lonely, the other depicted as on the prowl (in cinema, these are the only two types that seem to exist), hook up; Melanie makes the oh-so-predictable decision regarding her suitors; and the end credits roll and audience members head for the exits. Did I leave anything out?

Here's a question to ponder: Why did Warner Bros. elect to hide The Adventures of Pluto Nash from critics yet willfully preview Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever in advance? Not that I'm complaining, mind you -- it's far preferable to screen a flick ahead of its release than to waste an opening weekend afternoon playing catch-up -- but I chuckle thinking that some studio suit deemed Ballistic as worthy of any sort of accolade.

Yet another motion picture that owes its allegiance to the video game market (enough already), the stridently simplistic Ballistic is an absolute failure on even its most basic level as an action movie. Ineptly directed by a young Thai filmmaker who bills himself as Kaos (short for Wych Kaosayananda), this 90-minute equivalent of having one's head trapped between two clanging cymbals Chuck Jones-style might contain more explosions, gun battles and car chases per square foot of film footage than any other movie around, yet every boring moment of it is highly derivative, clumsily executed and narratively illogical (one of the heroes keeps setting off explosions away from the villains rather than next to them; what's the point of that?). When a filmmaker goes on record citing director Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) as a major influence without even tossing an honorable mention to the likes of John Ford or Howard Hawks (who knew a thing or two about action), it's enough to send a cold chill through the entire industry.

As a villainous lackey, Ray Park reveals himself to be an incredibly dull actor when he's not buried under makeup as The Phantom Menace's Darth Maul or X-Men's Toad. And as Ecks and Sever, two former government agents who square off against each other until they learn they have a common foe, Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu mumble their lines to the point of unintelligibility (not that the dialogue is even needed to follow this dum-dum plot). Both stars have made crisp action heroes in the past -- he in Desperado, she in Charlie's Angels -- but here they wearily trudge through a bog of ennui, dragging the rest of us right behind them. ===== Sweet Home Alabama**DIRECTED BY

Andy Tennant

STARS

Reese Witherspoon,

Josh Lucas

- - -

Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever*DIRECTED BY

Kaos

STARS

Antonio Banderas,

Lucy Liu

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