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While the memory is still fresh, ‘Deepwater Horizon’ grips us yet again

“Deepwater Horizon” has everything one wants out of a ripped-from-the-headlines disaster tale – blue-collar heroes, backwards-thinking business types in button-downs and khakis, explosive action, and the finest mustache of Kurt Russell’s career.

That also means director Peter Berg’s dramatization of the April 2010 tragedy on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico never strays from the standard tropes of disaster cinema. But even without any real surprises, the film is effective, always gripping, and unquestionably well-acted and produced.

It’s not easy to make such a well-known catastrophe seem fresh onscreen; the makers of last year’s “Everest” had an easier time, since the story of that climbing calamity was not firmly entrenched in the public’s consciousness.

The BP oil spill, however, is remembered by most. For the first hour or so of “Deepwater Horizon,” then, we watch and wait for catastrophe to strike.
Kudos to Berg and company for making us wait so long. Too bad that the wait includes the types of cutesy banter that tends to weigh down disaster cinema.

The majority of that banter is between Mark Wahlberg and Kate Hudson, and admittedly theirs is a likable pairing. Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, an oil rig worker on the verge of a 21-day stint on the floating, semi-submersible drilling unit known as the Deepwater Horizon, and Hudson is saddled with the one-note role of his wife, Felicia.

It’s an interesting gig, really, one well-explained by Williams’ young daughter early in the film with the help of a Coke can and a pen. (The contents of the can eventually shoot out, a rather droll but of foreshadowing.)

Also preparing to leave is Andrea Fleytas (“Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez) and Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell, a.k.a., “Mr. Jimmy.” There’s a wee bit of character development at the outset for Mike and Andrea, but almost none for Mr. Jimmy; as his back and forth with some BP big-shots demonstrates, he’s the hard-working boss you’d love to have a beer with, no more, no less.

One of those big-shots is Donald Vidrine, and in a wondrous bit of casting, he’s played by John Malkovich. The BP bosses have hired the Deepwater crew to drill, and due to numerous difficulties (most revolving around needed repairs to the rig), the job is now 43 days behind schedule.

Berg painstakingly lays out this recipe for trouble – the battles between Vidrine and Mr. Jimmy, the poor state of the rig, the worries of Wahlberg’s Mike Williams. By the time the mud literally starts overflowing, it’s clear that the project was doomed to fail.

The film’s second half is a relentless quest for survival, and it’s the sturdiest work of Peter Berg’s career. His track record is spotty, with duds like “Battleship” and “Lone Survivor” along with stronger efforts like “Friday Night Lights,” “The Kingdom,” and “Hancock.”

With “Deepwater Horizon” he takes his time, mostly avoids syrupy emotion, and makes event the “villains” human. It helps to have the key suit played by Malkovich; his scenes with Russell have an energy that comes from letting veteran performers rip.

Indeed, “Deepwater” is yet another reminder of the talents of Kurt Russell, a beloved actor who’s on a startling roll. In recent years he’s starred in two crackin’ Westerns, the deliciously nasty “Bone Tomahawk” and Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight,” appeared in the latest “Fast and the Furious” installment, and filmed a role in the sure-to-be-huge “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.”

He was a high point of “The Hateful Eight,” but his work here might be his strongest to date. Wahlberg is fine, but this is Russell’s show, to be sure. His mustache means business.

Thanks to Peter Berg, Kurt Russell, and John Malkovich, “Deepwater Horizon” is a nice tribute to the 11 men who died on the rig and those who survived. Disaster done right can be entertaining, and “Deepwater” is a solid example.

“Deepwater Horizon”

3 stars (Out of four)

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson. Directed by Peter Berg.

107 minutes. Rated PG-13 for for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.

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