Monday, December 04, 2006

“Déjà Vu,” dir. Tony Scott (Oklahoma Gazette)

Past Mistakes

Living in the past tends to work out better in art than in real life. In moviedom, time travel has long been irresistible, a literal pastime ripe with the stuff of great stories – tragedy and romance, fate and existential crisis. As such, it’s all the more baffling that the action-thriller “Déjà Vu” manages to seem so bloodless.

Denzel Washington stars as Doug Carlin, a sharp-eyed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent looking into the bombing of a New Orleans ferryboat. In the course of his investigation, Doug discovers that the corpse of a woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), has been found washed ashore in a neighboring parish. The body, covered in burns and the residue of explosives, appears to be one of the ferry victims.

Trouble is, Claire’s body was found an hour before the explosion. Doug concludes that the woman’s killer must be the bomber, and that solving Claire’s murder will lead him to the terrorist.

From this tantalizing mystery, “Déjà Vu” disappears down a rabbit hole of strained ideas. Doug is enlisted by an FBI agent (Val Kilmer) to help scan video recorded from a cockamamie device that can show everything in a specified location, and from multiple angles. The only drawback is that the data, ostensibly integrated from satellites, can only reveal what has occurred four days earlier. It isn’t long before Doug learns that the real explanation for what he’s seeing involves string theory, wormholes and the like.

Despite its sci-fi leanings, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Déjà Vu” is grounded in modern-day American disaster. The New Orleans location, of course, reveals a Katrina-ravaged metropolis, while the ferry explosion recalls the World Trade Center attack as well as the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. Oklahoma City, in fact, is referenced by Doug and his colleagues as a kind of shorthand for a shared tragedy -- sort of what Chinatown was to the 1974 detective film of the same name.

“Déjà Vu” must have looked great on paper, an action-thriller with a kick of mind-bending time travel. Alas, time-travel flicks invariably suffer from gaping lapses in logic. The successful ones (think “12 Monkeys” or even “Back to the Future”) overcome such handicaps by highlighting the romanticism of the exercise. But “Déjà Vu” fails to muster much humanity. Tony Scott’s direction is muscular but soulless. Like a speck of dirt on a white glove, the movie’s slickness makes it easier to spot the plot holes, none of which can really be discussed here without spoilers.

Inspired moments are compromised when the story can’t withstand even mild scrutiny. No one can deny the giddy fun of a chase involving an ATF agent and the phantom image of a car from four days earlier -- but it makes no sense, not even in the convoluted ground rules set up by “Déjà Vu.”

Still, truly bodacious movies deserve some praise. Mainstream Hollywood movies are not exactly renowned for taking risks, and so a flick willing to do so -- however flawed -- is worth an attaboy or two.


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