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CYBER-THRILLER'S A VIRTUAL PLETHORA OF SICK JOKES

In this year of cyber-thrillers, here's a variation we didn't need. Put "Virtuosity" in the same league with "Johnny Mnemonic," albeit with better actors.

After his success earlier this summer with the classy "Crimson Tide," Denzel Washington returns to the kind of gun-toting trash he attempted a few years ago (anyone remember "Ricochet"?).In the near future (1999 Los Angeles), convicted criminals are being used as guinea pigs in virtual reality experiments. If they prove successful, the training will be applied to police procedures.

But the main villain in these VR set-pieces, Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe), is a remarkably resourceful piece of artificial intelligence - and he's evolving. Naturally there's a Dr. Frankenstein hanging around, just waiting for the opportunity to unleash Sid on the real world.

Meanwhile, one of the prisoners in the experimental program is ex-cop Parker Barnes (Washington), who was convicted of a revenge-killing after a serial killer blew up his wife and child. And of all the heinous super-criminals whose personalities are part of Sid - including Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson - wouldn't you know that Barnes' nemesis is in there too.

When Sid leaves his VR box (he is born "Alien"-like from a giant egg), he quickly tires of wreaking havoc and yearns for an opponent who will give him a challenge.

So, Barnes is offered a full pardon if he can catch Sid, and to keep him in line a homing device is implanted in his brain, a la "Total Recall." He also gets a partner, a criminal psychologist (Kelly Lynch at her most bland) who is doing research for a book. Right.

The idea here, of course, is to bring video-game elements into the real world. Sid may lose an arm, but he can regenerate himself. And he knows that if he kills Barnes the game is over, so he allows Barnes to remain alive and hot on his trail.

Sid is also quite taken with himself and loves the media. So, he keeps looking for bigger and better opportunities to cause mayhem, looking for live coverage. This leads to his taking over a tabloid television program, which he redubs "Death TV," as he kills people in the studio on-camera.

There are some interesting ideas at work here, with potential for commentary on news vs. entertainment and violence in America. But it remains unexplored. Director Brett Leonard ("The Lawnmower Man," "Hideaway") and screenwriter Eric Bernt ("Surviving the Game") are more interested in cheap, sick jokes than satire and in gunplay more than anything innovative with the gimmick at hand.

Meanwhile, Washington is earnest and Crowe ("The Quick and the Dead," "Romper Stomper") is giddy, and the film gets more and more idiotic as it moves along. (Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher has another thankless role as a political overseer.)

But the movie revels in humiliation and sadistic behavior, and after awhile it's more an exercise in discomfort than entertainment.

Favorite line: "The only way to stop him is to bust up his software module!" It could have come from a studio chief talking about the director.

"Virtuosity" is rated R for considerable violence, with profanity, vulgarity and nudity.