The Reeler


February 14, 2008


The motion's the thing in Liman's frantic version of sci-fi hopscotch

Doug Liman is no John Woo. Where the Hong Kong émigré tears through scenery and plot alike with a "ballet of bullets" in his mindlessly gripping action productions, Liman creates a more generalized choreography of motion. From Go to ridiculously overblown studio products like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the director tells stories with constant forward motion. Whether it's running, punching, fucking, combusting or any other spectacularly expeditious movement, Liman's movies progress with the incessant need to move from point to point, sequence to sequence, without letting the story get in the way.

With that in mind, his attraction to Jumper, Steven Gould's 1992 sci-fi novel, makes perfect sense: Gould tells the story of a disgruntled young adult named David (Hayden Christensen), who has the inexplicable ability to teleport to any location he can visualize. It's an ADD dream come true, and Liman's big screen realization of Jumper yields a hailstorm of locations and mini-sets. David can head from the Great Pyramids of Egypt to the Empire State Building to the Far East in a matter of seconds, and when a vaguely defined group of murderous fundamentalists called Paladins -- purists when it comes to human nature, they despise his skill -- begin chasing him through the tunnels of air left in his trail, a globe-spanning action montage whirls across the screen. Blink and you might miss a few thousand miles of travel, but the fight rages on.

The nature of the battle, however, isn't nearly as complicated as the speed of its design. David discovers his unnatural power as a teenager, choosing to leave his decrepit motherless household to hone the ability in New York City. Rather than investigating the physical cause, Jumper ignores science in favor of fantasy. In his early twenties, David leads a carefree playboy existence, casually pilfering money from bank vaults while meandering around the world on binges of tourism and one night stands. His hustler lifestyle gets shaken up when a merciless Paladin (Samuel Jackson, donning a hilarious white wig and spouting his usual minstrel-worthy villain speak on autopilot) begins tracking him around the world with an entire army of bloodthirsty Paladins in tow. After encountering a fellow jumper named Griffin (Jamie Bell), David learns how to use the faculty in his defense.

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Unlike most pop-art stories where superhuman capabilities play a central role, Jumper never becomes a superhero story. David's physical advantage could function in any given X-Men installment, but there's never a moment where he decides to use it for the greater good. This refusal actually gives Jumper a kind of sleek detachment; the absence of a standard good-versus-evil trajectory essentially pits a morally ambiguous character against an inexplicably psychopathic force.

Interestingly enough, Gould's book (a sequel, Reflex, was published in 2004) has a classical arc. David does become a hero of sorts as a specialized CIA employee; here, he learns how to skirt a threat while fighting to maintain his utterly cool lifestyle and protect a newly bedded paramour (Rachel Bilson). The change suits Liman's need for a fast pace that won't pause for ethical contemplation. Then again, there's plenty of room for a change of heart in the inevitable sequel.

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