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Deja Vu (2006) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 22 November 2006
Ridley Scott is a first-rate director; his brother Tony is mostly second rate. Among his credits: “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Crimson Tide,” “Enemy of the State,” “Spy Game,” “Man on Fire” and last year’s dreadful “Domino.” He probably considers himself a master of action and a film stylist, but he’s just self-indulgent and trendy. Fortunately, with “Déjà Vu” he’s dropped the ugly, over-saturated, cruddy look that severely damaged both “Domino” and “Man on Fire.” This new movie is made in a standard Hollywood style, and it’s a great relief.

It stars Denzel Washington, who appeared in a couple of previous Tony Scott films, so they probably are comfortable working together. Certainly Washington is, as he always has been, a very comfortable presence on screen, warm, likeable and intelligent. (I’d love to see him play a conscienceless villain.)

The movie, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer from a script by newcomer Bill Marsili and veteran Terry Rossio (“Aladdin,” “Shrek,” “Pirates of the Caribbean’), is a slick, entertaining thriller. There are occasional action sequences, one of which is much more annoying than exciting, and the structure is awkward—the first two-thirds of the movie is primarily a lengthy setup for the last third. But the basic idea is interesting, if not really novel.

On Mardi Gras in New Orleans (after Katrina), we see a throng of Navy personnel and other people board a ferry for a party. The mood is joyous and buoyant with children laughing, couples embracing, the sailors in high spirits—and then the whole damned thing explodes in a huge ball of fire (heavily featured in previews).

Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent/investigator Doug Carlin (Washington), well known for his good work on the Oklahoma City bombing, is assigned to the case, and quickly discovers that (as we saw) the explosion was caused by a bomb in the back of an SUV on the ferry’s auto deck. He’s also called in to examine the corpse of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), found downstream from the explosion. But though it’s clear her killer intended it to look as though she was killed in the disaster (which claimed 543 lives), she was actually killed a couple of hours earlier.

Intrigued, Doug investigates her background, talking to her grieving father (Enrique Castillo), visiting her apartment where he’s puzzled by the sign “U Can Save Her” in plastic letters on her refrigerator door, bloody cloth in the sink and a pistol on a counter. When he plays her answering machine, he’s astounded to hear his own voice—he’d never met her, but a note at his office had directed him to call her number. He finds himself unusually drawn to the dead woman, and this only increases when Doug is asked by FBI agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer, surprisingly heavy) to join his team.
They’re housed in a strangely and elaborately high-tech area under heavy security; the leader of the team is bearded, quirky Denny (Adam Goldberg), and the others are clearly devoted to their work. Which consists of watching highly mobile, very adaptable monitor views of the ferry dock days and six hours earlier. Doug’s told that this is satellite imagery; computers can create this view of the past.

They begin watching Claire, too, and without even realizing it, Doug gradually falls in love with her. Washington is absolutely excellent in these scenes; we can follow the development of his feelings in his very slight changes of expression and intensity.

But then he notices that she seems to be reacting to their presence, as if the TV view operates both directions. If so, this might mean that they could communicate with the past and prevent Claire’s death—perhaps even prevent the ferry explosion. But first they have to identify the terrorist responsible, and Doug’s the man for the job. However, when he learns that it might, just MIGHT, be possible to physically travel into the past….

The biggest weakness of the story, as mentioned above, is that it takes a long while to reach this point. Fortunately, we spend it in Denzel Washington’s company, and he’s a casually powerful spellbinder—when he’s on screen, you don’t look at anyone else, including a scene-stealer like Val Kilmer or the talented and very beautiful Paula Patton. Clearly, though, someone thought more was needed, and there is an imaginatively-conceived but annoyingly-executed car chase partway through the movie that just about derails the plot. But the story derails itself; too much time is spent in dealing with issues other than the possible rescue of Claire.

However, as it becomes more and more possible to consider the possibility of saving Claire, the entire team gets fired with enthusiasm. Their first efforts unexpectedly end with the murder (in the past) of Doug’s missing partner. The team’s view is firmly limited to four days and six hours ago, and it’s a single viewpoint—they can’t go back further in time, they can’t come closer to the present. And they’re limited in the area they can observe—but there’s a helmet that allows the wearer to extend the distance, with gadgetry transmitting the images back to home base.

When it becomes absolutely crucial to follow the terrorist (Jim Caviezel), though four days and six hours in the past, Doug leaps into a Hummer and takes off, watching the past with one eye (when it is a rainy night) and the present with the other (clear and sunny). He roars across town, smashing up the cars of startled and innocent motorists; this is supposed to be exciting, but Scott overdoes the editing, and we also can’t shed the feeling that this much destruction was unnecessary. But hey, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer movie; there HAD to be a car chase, however unmotivated. This one is much more annoying than it is exciting.

And yes, of course, Doug eventually does go back in time, with some complications. It’s all extremely urgent—but then the movie pauses for a long time in Claire’s apartment. What happened to the urgency?

It all concludes with a very witty, romantic ending, possible only in a story that allows time travel.

Washington isn’t quite the be-all and end-all of “Déjà Vu,” but he’s the movie’s main virtue. It’s puzzling that he isn’t even a bigger star; he’s charming, appealing, handsome and a very good actor. We easily believe him as a BATF agent/investigator; he moves smoothly through the investigation, and he’s our man on the spot. But he’s very ably supported by the less familiar Green, who quickly fills in the details of this woman—funny, likeable, beautiful, and more than a little naïve. She and Washington work very well together.

Jim Caviezel doesn’t turn up until the movie is more than half over, and most of the time he’s shooting at someone, but he has a great confrontational scene with Washington. Doug is in emotional turmoil but overcomes it to deal with this terrorist in an almost off-hand, relaxed manner, with plenty of laughter at the other man’s expense. But Caviezel’s character doesn’t give into anger; he’s very controlled, very serene in his utter conviction that even though he blew up a boat full of Navy personnel and innocent civilians, he’s the real patriot of the two of them.

Time travel movies can be annoyingly hard to follow, but “Déjà Vu” is not as knotted as others. It’s simple and direct, it raises questions it doesn’t answer—but we still accept it, as this is first-time research for all involved.

If “Déjà Vu” had kept a tighter focus, had been more creatively structured, it might have become a cult favorite like “Time After Time.” But the varying, sometimes conflicting, requirements of science fiction, action and romance are not well integrated despite Washington’s fine performance. He can only do so much. This is a much better movie than Tony Scott usually turns out, but it needed a more creative hand at the helm to rise above its level, which is an entertaining but forgettable night out at the movies.

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