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TWISTER - * * * - Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Jami Gertz, Cary Elwes; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, vulgarity); Carmike Plaza 5400 Theaters; Century 9 Theaters; Cineplex Odeon Holladay Center Cinemas, South Towne Center and Trolley Corners Cinemas; Gateway 8 Cinemas; Redwood Drive-In (with "Executive Decision"); Reel Theaters.

As disaster movies go, "Twister" is up there with the best. The story is pretty thin, but the gee-whiz effects - especially in an auditorium with good stereo sound - are guaranteed to knock the audience for a loop.

Employing implausible but thrilling Indiana Jones-style narrow escapes and taking the intensity level up a notch every 15 minutes or so, "Twister" follows a group of "storm chasers," scientists who try to get within harm's way of monster tornadoes, in order to plant an instrument pack that will be sucked up into the funnel. With the information that is fed back to them via computer, the team hopes to devise better warning systems for people who live in areas plagued by raging weather.

In this movie, however, the real trick isn't so much getting in the storm's path and dropping the equipment - it's getting out of the way before you get sucked into the funnel.

As the film opens, weather-master Bill Paxton and his fiancee Jami Gertz arrive in Oklahoma to intercept the scientific team Paxton once led. The only reason he's there is to get his wife, Helen Hunt, to sign divorce papers. But she is obviously still in love with him and suckers Paxton into helping the team track the worst storm to hit the area in more than 50 years. (Gertz laments, "When you used to tell me you chased tornadoes, deep down I thought it was a metaphor.")

Hunt, meanwhile, is overly obsessive about the storm, as it parallels one that traumatized her as a child. In fact, there are times when her character seems to be a modern incarnation of Capt. Ahab, pursuing the ever-elusive Moby Dick.

And then there's Paxton's old nemesis Cary Elwes, who heads up a rival team of villainous scientists who are also chasing the storm. You can tell they're villains because their vehicles are black. (Paxton says that with corporate sponsorships, "He's in it for the money - not the science.")

Plotwise, that's about it - and you can guess the rest. And the action is so intense that when it slows down to move the story along, the cornball elements become more apparent and the film gets a bit sluggish.

But with a truckload of eccentric supporting players, some witty dialogue and thrills and spills galore, "Twister" delivers the goods for summer escapist entertainment and should blow the lid off of next week's box-office numbers.

Hunt, who is no stranger to the big screen, though her biggest success is on TV's "Mad About You," is utterly charming, and she does get a couple of opportunities to demonstrate her knack for comic timing (as when she says of Elwes, "He really is in love with himself - I thought it was just a summer thing"). And Paxton, who has labored in lesser movies for some years, makes a first-rate leading man.

But "Twister" is really a director's film, and Jan De Bont, who made his directing debut with "Speed," proves the talent he demonstrated for action in that picture was no fluke.

"Twister" is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity and vulgarity.