Sunday, December 03, 2006

Deja Vu

DEJA VU (Tony Scott, 2006)

Director Tony Scott has never been one to play it safe, sometimes to his own detriment, but his risk-taking opening to DEJA VU seems pretty bold even for him.

Set in a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, the film begins with the terrorist bombing of the Canal St. ferry transporting families and Naval officers to a Fat Tuesday celebration. Before the bomb goes off Scott lingers on shots of men in uniform happy to be on release and bored children waiting to get to their destination. Amid the chaos of the explosion, the director shows burning sailors leaping from the boat. None of this is new, but considering the setting and who is involved, the matter-of-fact depiction of members of a branch of the armed services being killed is kind of shocking in a mainstream action movie.

ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is assigned to the case. During his investigation he's tipped off to the murder of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). Her body washed ashore around the time of the explosion. It is assumed she was one of the more than five hundred passengers on the ferry, but the timing doesn't work out. Someone wants investigators to believe she was onboard, meaning that if he can find Claire's murderer, Doug can find whoever is responsible for blowing up the ferry. Stranger yet, Claire tried to contact Doug before her death.

At first glance DEJA VU appears to be a conventional Denzel Washington action movie, but there are some major surprises in store for viewers thinking they walked into a standard police procedural. Agent Andrew Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) asks Doug to join his new, top secret unit working on the case. This team possesses tools that take the film into the realm of science fiction, a direction not hinted at in the promotions for the film. It's essentially impossible to review DEJA VU without spoiling this central element, a twist I thoroughly enjoyed, so those who don't want it ruined should continue reading at their own peril.

Pryzwarra's team of braniacs has harnessed the ability to see whatever happened four days ago. It's far too complicated to explain, but suffice it to say that as long as they know where to look, they can see whatever was happening as it occurred in the past. It's not perfect. There are no second chances or rewind options, and the areas covered are limited by satellite placement.

The fantasy technology deepens DEJA VU'S resonance and makes the New Orleans setting all the more appropriate and poignant. Would being able to see into the past and send messages to people there allow us to avoid catastrophes, or would everything play out the same way because we've already done those things that have brought us to that point? It's the main conundrum in time travel movies, but this fascinating riddle gives DEJA VU an unexpected thoughtfulness. (The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" also gains some weight from its use in a pivotal scene.)

Scott's manic style is well matched with the technology's constant scanning. The technique reaches its apotheosis in a thrilling scene in which Doug gets in a car chase with a suspect whose actions were four days earlier.

As usual Washington is charismatic and projects an honorable core akin to Jimmy Stewart. It tends to be forgotten that the venerable Stewart also played his share of oddball roles, like in his darker work with Alfred Hitchcock. With DEJA VU and this year's INSIDE MAN, it's fun to watch Washington cut loose a little within his upstanding characters.

An unforeseen mix of action, sci-fi, and even a hint of romance, DEJA VU'S pleasures are in delivering what we don't see coming.

Grade: B

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