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(2003) ** Pg-13
116 min. Paramount. Director: Richard Donner. Cast: Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly, David Thewlis.

Nothing says "beware, moviegoers" like top billing for Paul Walker, Hollywood's favorite open-mouthed bass. Before he opens his prodigious aperture, Walker is the all-American hero-next-door: slight but preternaturally handsome, with piercing eyes which suggest he means action-packed business. Then the surfer dude accent spills forth and Walker begins to chew the air like a camel trying to solve an equation. Even Keanu Reeves, in his "dude" heyday knew better than that. Still, here's Walker again, making Michael Crichton roll over in his bed in Richard Donner's science-fiction thriller Timeline.

This time, Walker plays Chris Johnston, who hangs around digs solely to pick up an archeologist babe he likes (Frances O'Connor), making no bones about his total lack of interest in the past. Donner wastes no time in testing the audience's gullibility by casting uber-Scotsman Billy Connolly as Professor Edward Johnston, Walker's archeologist father. Connolly's expert on 1357 Castlegard, France disappears into that very past via a wormhole operated by the usual Bill Gates type (David Thewlis, joining in with an atrocious American accent) and his castrated lackeys. The vaguely sinister high-tech team recruits Johnston's team and his previously disaffected lad to ride into the past to "mingle with the locals," saving face and Johnston.

There's about twenty minutes of grade-A American cheese from the point when our time-travellers embark to the complication which puts their return to the present in jeopardy. Donner wisely pauses for the civilian shock of a first kill (though he somewhat gracelessly repeats that emotional beat moments later), and he makes a good effort to cultivate the scrappy, scared qualities of reluctant heroes. Donner also orchestrates an impressive display of trebuchets (great, swinging catapults) and a fleeting moment of visual poetry: flaming arrows passing in the night sky.

But most of Timeline is merely mediocre, with the various character objectives of the nasty English conquerors and the present-day-trippers a bit too slippery to the touch. As the plot steadily devolves, any notion of strategy on either side goes with it, leaving a disconnected series of random maneuvers and straight-ahead clashes. Timeline wastes some strong talent--including Neal McDonough, Matt Craven, and Anna Friel as the fetching and estimable Lady Claire--when it goes soft in the middle, never to recover. By the end, everyone's a picture-book damsel or a knight-in-shining-ardor.

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