The Reeler


November 21, 2006

Déjà Vu

Washington and director Scott re-team for an entertaining if mistimed summer action exercise

ADVISORY: This review contains spoilers about the gimmick revealed around the 45-minute mark that makes the rest of the movie work. It's not really that big a deal, but proceed at your own risk.

With its title tailor-made for critical punchlines, Déjà Vu finds director Tony Scott once again cranking up the filters, amping up the smoke and fetishizing his explosions. Blissfully, though, it's Scott's least aggressive film in ages, with none of Domino's overbearing weirdness or painfully blunt motifs, without the excessive length of Man on Fire and so on. Smoothly entertaining and instantly forgettable, Déjà Vu is a mistimed summer blockbuster that once more abuses the tenets of the shaky science of time-travel.

Basically reprising his competent wiseass act from Inside Man, Denzel Washington is ATF agent Doug Carlin, one of the first on the scene after a horrific boat explosion that kills 543. The explosion -- milked for all its bathetic glory by Scott, who heavily emphasizes the innocent children, loving girlfriends and wives and brave sailors about to be blown to smithereens -- has the inevitable overtones of 9/11 that accompany any portrayal of mass killing these days, but that's not good enough for Scott. The trifecta of tragedy cross-referenced here is filled in by the setting of New Orleans ("Katrina only made us stronger," an official banner dubiously announces) and by making it known that Carlin was also on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombings.

None of this is coincidence: Déjà Vu is an extended right-wing argument for the doctrine of pre-emptive strike. (It would've fared better before the midterm elections.) To discover the bomber's identity, Carlin is roped into a working with a top-secret agency that's discovered a time-portal which allows them to look back exactly four days and change into the future, a sort of streaming video without limit. The idea is only to surveil, not to go back in time and change it (they're not even sure if that's possible), but Carlin will have none of it: "I'm always having to solve a crime after it's committed," he yells. "For once, I'd to stop a crime before it happens." Add to this Carlin's suspiciously familiar contempt for intellectuals ("I'll speak slow so that those of you with Ph.D's can understand," he announces), and the fact that the bad guy turns out (of course!) to be an anti-government nutjob, and you have perhaps the most sympathetic cinematic brief yet filed on behalf of the Bush administration.

Still, just because something's obvious doesn't necessarily make it the message, and Déjà Vu is basically just explosions and banter. The scene-stealing MVP, of course, turns out to be perpetually forlorn neurotic Adam Goldberg; he gets about all of four lines, but they're good ones. For much of the film, Washington simply hangs out with Goldberg's surveillance team (they stop to give a lesson in time-travel, which apparently proves that the science hasn't advanced much since Back To The Future, Part II). Eventually, through some moronic contrivances, Washington gets into action-hero mode, allowing for a super-cool car chase that shouldn't be spoiled and is the film's one genuine stand-out moment, and then does the time travel thing, landing himself into a series of echoes and coincidences that dimly echo Terry Gilliam's 1995 Twelve Monkeys, which worked with a similar Möbius strip structure.

The emphasis is on "dimly"; even by its own internal logic (not to mention actual wormhole theory), Déjà Vu makes no sense. Still, it has enough of a sense of self-mocking to make for serviceable holiday entertainment; the darker implications will enrage no one but the kind of person unlikely to seek their political messages from Tony Scott anyway.

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