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Film review: Article 99

"Article 99" aspires to be a blend of "M*A*S*H" and "Catch-22," and also brings to mind Paddy Chayefsky's classic black comedy "The Hospital."

Unfortunately, "Article 99" is merely a faint echo of those films, which is too bad since it boasts a likable cast and real potential in its storyline.

The film unfolds, at least to some degree, through the eyes of a naive young intern (Kiefer Sutherland) who signs on to do his residency at a Veteran's hospital overrun with bureaucratic mix-ups, an overabundance of paperwork, funding cutbacks and an older staff of hard-liners who would rather follow regulations than save lives.

Battling those problems, and taking on the administration, are the young turks who take care of patients — Ray Liotta, whose character is clearly the "Hawkeye" of this film and his cohorts, played by Forest Whitaker, Lea Thompson, Keith David, John C. McGinley and eventually Kathy Baker, as a new psychiatrist Liotta falls for.

The Catch-22 here is that because operations needed by patients are unauthorized, Liotta and friends will put some other procedure on the chart, then perform unauthorized major surgery. They also run around the hospital stealing supplies and switching patients — including the occasional dead body — to free up beds where they are needed.

And, of course, the filmmakers just can't resist the cliche of the crazed Vietnam veteran who goes berserk, shoots up the hospital and takes hostages.

Despite the earnest efforts of the cast, none of this really comes together as well as it should; the best moments are on display only in fits and spurts. And some cast-members — most notably Whitaker and Thompson — are woefully underused.

Liotta, known primarily for more intense, serious roles ("GoodFellas," "Something Wild") is very good, balancing comedy, tragedy and satire. Eli Wallach has a showcase role as a dying patient, and McGinley's rapid-fire, wisecracking delivery, though sometimes a bit much, helps him stand out in the crowd.

In general, however, the film suffers from subplot overload and winds up feeling more like a string of skits than a cohesive film. Some of those skits are pretty good, though.

"Article 99" is rated R for violence, hospital gore, profanity, vulgarity and sexual innuendo.