Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Popcorn Love: Deja Vu

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 1, 2008

Baby I swear

What if you had to tell someone about the most underrated action movie of the last few years, but you knew they’d never believe you? I’m not sure that the reception for Deja Vu was particulary negative–it has a 59 on Metacritic and grossed 64 mil on an 80 budget, neither of which is particularly commendable, but neither of which is quite disastrous either. In any event, I don’t think the term “thinking man’s action movie” was used in too many reviews, and I don’t see too many sequels coming down the horizon. Yet in recent memory, I can’t think of another mainstream action flick that was as engaging, suspenseful, or thought-provoking (in an entirely unthreatening and non-challenging way, of course) as this one.

The previews didn’t help, of course. Between the rough, sun-drenched Bad Boys-II style cinematography, the countless satellite surveillancve shots and the gratuitious car-flip shots–even if he was directing a Jane Austen adaptation, I’m pretty sure Tony Scott would still find room for a flipped car or two–viewers had no real reason to expect anything but Enemy of the State II: Blender’s Revenge. Not to say that Deja Vu was too far beyond that–this was definitely still a Tony Scott movie, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing–but it was just interesting enough, just different enough too stand apart a little. And it was helped by one brilliant action sequence and the solidification of one of the great actor evolutions of the new millenium.

First off, who had any idea going into this that the movie had anything whatsoever to do with time travel? The trailer briefly alludes to it, and I guess the title maybe should’ve been a tip-off, but for the most part, it just looked like it would be another random murder resulting in Denzel doing his typical badass cop routine. And for the first half-hour, that’s all the movie looks like it’s going to be, until he meets up in that weird room with Val Kilmer, Adam Goldberg and the quiet, murderous dude from The Butterfly Effect
(either the most inspired supporting cast in Scott’s repertoire, or the most wasteful) and realizes he can do a little time-jumping. The time paradoxes subsequently created are a little more garbled than those of the first two Terminators, but a little bit less outlandish than Frequency or Back to the Future, and ultimately, surprisingly complex for a movie that seems such a throwaway. And though it’s hardly an innovative sort of action conceit, you never really get that yeah-I-know-where-this-is-going feeling that you do with most other basic cable-ready action flicks, which is fairly refreshing.

The movie buys a lot of goodwill for its time-travel rule-bending with the action sequence midway through the movie, in which Denzel goes racing down the turnpike in pursuit of the movie’s killer, with the major obstacle being that he’s chasing someone from over four days ago. Denzel needs to keep tabs both on chasing the guy from four days ago and not getting into any accidents on modern-day traffic, though he definitely de-prioritizes the latter responsibility. I’m always a sucker for multi-layered action sequences, and this one stacks on layers in a way I’ve never quite seen in an action movie before. Plus, it makes the way for some amazingly pointless carnage and destruction, as Denzel drives against oncoming traffic, even stopping dead in the middle of the road at one point to contemplate the gravity of the situation. Casually commanding Kilmer, Goldberg and company to “send a Medic to [location]” is all the compassion or concertn Denzel can manage for the multiple pile-ups he instigates while in time-spanning pursuit. (Naturally, this future-classic is nowhere to be found on YouTube).

And Denzel, by the way, is the main reason to watch this movie. Wasn’t going to get him too many Oscar and Golden Globe nods–hell, I think he even got snubbed for an MTV Movie Award nom for this one–but it’s one of the most important performances in the Washington ouevre, because it officially marks his transition into the Shouty Al Pacino phase of his career. Makes sense–this happened to Pacino shortly after his Oscar-winning, against-type performance in Scent of a Woman, and this is something Denzel’s been working up to since his Oscar-winning, against-type performance in Training Day. Subtlety and character depth are no longer the name of the game for the man arguable as the country’s most universaslly revered actor–now it’s all about playing authority figures that are perpetually convinced that they are the smartest, best-looking and most badass dude in the room.

And to Denzel’s credit, it’s almost always true, so it’s usually a joy to watch him in Alpha Male control-freak mode. Deja Vu is the apex–the dude spends most of the movie just mentally overpowering a room full of brainiacs, extracting the truth from their bullshit like a verbal grape stomper, without a moment’s doubt whatsoever. He’s constantly using ultra-technological equipment before he has the slightes grasp of how to operate it, he repeatedly breaches the space-time continuum without considering the risks or asking “May I?,” and he plows through cars and personal effects like a man with absolutely no regard for property damage. It started with Training Day, and it’s moved up through Man on Fire, The Inside Man and American Gangster, but now he’s probably Badgery Denzel Washington for the rest of his career.

Works for me.

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