Thursday, June 21, 2007

One bad premise sinks Déjà Vu

I watch a lot of Denzel Washington movies. And there is a reason for that. But it’s not just that he is effortlessly good looking. Or that he is such a genuine acting talent. Or that he rarely turns in a bad performance.

The reason is that with Denzel you get to watch an actor who is at the top of his game. More than most other actors, he can change the complexion of the scene with something deft – like the pout that portrays momentary disarray or the megawatt smile that can project arrogance, pleasure or sarcasm. He can deftly stoop a little lower than normal to convey vulnerability – or turn a little slower than usual to get your attention. He can deliver a line in a completely flat tone and force you to read his inner turmoil. Because of the vigor that he brings to each role, the movie Denzel is in becomes immaterial. Each of his recent films has felt like sitting through an acting class.

Yet Denzel isn’t as huge as he should be in Hollywood. More often than not he picks interesting subject matter. He picks good directors. He protects his characters well. He raises the game of everyone around him. Yet there are one or two things wrong with his movies – internal or external. And usually they suck the commercial life out of the project.

Take Déjà Vu for example – an emotionally taut thriller that works on multiple levels but stumbles badly on one. The movie – edited brilliantly by the way – starts off with a montage that depicts sailors and their families boarding a ferry in New Orleans that will ship them to a party. The mood is upbeat, laughter is in the air.

The ferry blows up via a bomb in a pickup truck parked on the boat. Over 500 people are killed in the carnage. Denzel, playing an ATF agent called Doug Carlin investigates the crime.

At this point Val Kilmer shows up portraying a somewhat tubby FBI agent – Pryzwarra - and the stage is set for Déjà vu to take its big fall. Kilmer offers Carlin a way to look – via a complicated system of satellite surveillance and computer extrapolation – into the past. This turns out to be so complicated poor Denzel is used to ask a number of basic questions so that audiences can get it via him. It made my head hurt but more importantly it slowed the movie considerably and unintentionally. The science of it sounded pretty ridiculous too.

No sooner had that happened when an unnecessary twist requires us to understand a completely different explanation for how everyone can look into the past. And the new premise is just as painful to understand or buy. It caused me such instant indigestion that it was hard to swallow the plausibility of everything else that happened afterwards.

Still, everyone tries their damndest. Denzel, in particular, turns in another bravura performance. Tony Scott – displaying some of brother Ridley’s visual flair – uses the sci-fi angles to deliver some unusual twists to well worn clichés. Paula Patton belies her inexperience to turn in a fine performance that holds the key to the mystery. And Jim Caviezel chomps up the few good scenes that come his way.

Brilliant jockeys all - flogging a dead horse.

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