Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washintong, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer
Okay “¦ so what the hell was that?
“DÃ©jÃ Vu“ is a slick-looking mess, an empty exercise in plot service — nothing going on in this film makes much sense, every action being driven by the need to advanced a half-baked storyline built around a premise whose nature and consequences appear never to have been really thought through.
The film has stuff happening, is interesting to look at, but there’s nothing holding it together, no core logic that lets a viewer invest in any character or any action. The only note I wrote during the screening that’s worth citing here is this: “It’s like being an American watching soccer: Everyone’s just running around, and I don’t really care.”
The film opens in New Orleans, where a commuter ferry is blown to scrap by a bomb, killing more than 500 people. ATF agent Denzel Washington arrives on the scene, and we know he’s Da Man because he gets out of his car in slow motion, underscoring how important he is. In case you got this far and missed that he’s, you know, Denzel Washington. So DW comes off as a happy-faced Sherlock Holmes — he spends half the film with such a laid-back, loopy grin that my bet is he wrote backstory for his character that includes a childhood head injury. But when he’s not a mild-mannered dufus, he’s a supercop, coming to CSI conclusions just from sniffing some grime on his fingertips.
He hooks up with Val Kilmer, who probably did not gain all that weight for this role, whose some kind of FBI cop with a crazy gizmo that can look exactly four and a half days into the past, and lets them see anywhere, including through walls — giving them a chance to figure out who the bomber was by watching the crime unfold. Only, Washington has figured out that the murder of a beautiful young woman in the hours before the blast must be tied in to the big case, so they spend most of their time watching Paula Patton (the most likable part of “Idlewild“) walk around her apartment in her lingerie.
All right, here’s some spoilers: The scientific types eventually start spouting physics buzzwords to explain how they can get a window into the past that’s so limited in scope (only New Orleans, only four days ago, only things that complicate the plot just enough to keep it interesting to the writers) yet can see anywhere, and then we start discussing whether they can send anyone back through the window. It’s flat out impossible, we’re told, until the story decides it’s not, and then stuff starts getting sent back, including Denzell himself, where he can struggle to save the girl and stop the Timothy McVeigh-ish mad bomber.
There’s potential here for fun with time travel. The idea that the past is immutable — that if Denzell goes into the past, he was already there in the past and therefore already failed to prevent the bombing — creates suspense as Washington moves through Patton’s last day, realizing that signs of his presence there had been present all along. But the film completely mucks up the logic of that, leaving an ending that doesn’t make much sense, isn’t as emotionally satisfying as it’s meant to be, and comes on the tail of lots and lots of dumb behavior by all the cops involved.
Stupidity aside, it must be said that Tony Scott (who worked with Washington in “Man on Fire” and also gave the world “Top Gun,” “Days of Thunder” and “Enemy of the State”) does a bang-up job directing this thing. The camera is a slick, roaming eye that creates tension where there isn’t much — I mean, four people sitting around in a weird lab watching a big-screen TV isn’t nearly the movie-stopping snoozefest it sounds like. The film probably lacks an emotional core, but it doesn’t appear Scott had much to work with in that regard. The film’s biggest directorial flaw is uneven pacing. The start is way too slow (the slow-motion of Denzell is not quite cringe-worthy), the scientific blabbity blab is unconvincing, and the end is kinda flat and unsatisfying. But that accounts for about 30 minutes, total, of the film, and the rest of it is pops along with style.
So if you’re a fan of story logic, if you like your police procedurals or science-fiction stories to make sense, to think out their premises and add up in the end, you’d find this an unsatisfying exercise in generic Hollywood slop. Also, if you want a film called “DÃ©jÃ Vu” to have anything to do with dÃ©jÃ vu, you’ll also be let down. If you like watching Denzell Washington in a lightweight (non-Oscar-baiting) role and just want to turn off your brain and look at the shiny big movie screen, you’ll probably dig this enough. It’ll kill two hours good and dead for you, but you’ll wish you’d waited for the DVD.