While — believe it or not — I go into every film hoping it will be good, the prospect of finding merit in just about anything signed by Tony Scott (Spy Game (2001) and The Hunger (1983) to one side) seemed sufficiently remote to warrant something approaching cinematic dread when settling in for Deja Vu. And at first the dread was indeed warranted. By the time I’d been subjected to “cute” Touchstone and producer Jerry Bruckheimer logos that repeated themselves (deja vu, you see), I was prepared for Scott at his gimmicky worst (and Bruckheimer in full over-produced mode).
The opening sequence wasn’t much of an improvement — on the surface — feeling like the jingoistic world of one of those “Morning in America” political ads with its clean-cut servicemen, toddler-bouncing veterans, well-scrubbed homemaker moms with kids that seemed to have stepped out of an Olan Mills brochure, etc. Knowing that all this was leading up to a Bruckheimerian big explosion just made it that much more tasteless and manipulative. However, what seemed so brow-smackingly awful at the onset turns out to be a brilliant device for generating suspense in the film’s third act. The simplified, easy to remember cliched images — being brought back into play to let the viewer know how close to disaster the characters are — is a masterstroke of cleverness. It may not be great filmmaking, but it certainly works as slick popcorn moviemaking.
The screenplay by TV writer Bill Marsilii and veteran screenwriter Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean) is equally clever — even if its romance is essentially a time-travel variant on the classic 1944 Otto Preminger film, Laura. However, the screenplay’s not without a few problems — some of which are merely inherent in nearly all time-travel fantasies once you examine the logic, but a few of which are just not thought out. For example, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is so focused on traveling back in time to save Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton, Idlewild) that he appears completely unconcerned about the other 543 lives hanging in the balance. Similarly, character motivation in general is often sketchy, especially as concerns FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) and Jack McCready (Bruce Greenwood, Being Julia).
The principle hook of the film — time travel — is invariably inventive and even makes a degree of sense — at least till the very end when the movie slightly cheats to get itself out of a corner. Some of its more outrageous moments — a car chase that takes place in two different time frames with nary a cop in sight, despite the expected Bruckheimer production level of property damage — are a little dubious. And the all-too-convenient manner in which a woman (Patton) soaked in diesel fuel can crawl around in a blazing inferno and not burst into flames is just silly. And from what secret compartment in his jacket does the psycho terrorist (Jim Caviezel) produce that machine gun? But let’s face facts, Deja Vu isn’t meant for heavy thinking; it’s simply designed as entertainment. On that level, it’s hard to fault. The level of excitement, the aforementioned cleverness, the nicely sketched in characterizations all combine to make it work more often than it doesn’t.
The acting is definitely a plus, even if Agent Carlin is the kind of role Denzel Washington could play on a first read-through. Paula Patton fulfills the promise she showed earlier this year in Idlewild, while the trio of scientists played by Adam Goldberg (Stay Alive), Elden Henson (The Butterfly Effect) and TV actress Erika Alexander add emotional depth to the film. The real surprise though, is finding Jim Caviezel (taking a break from messiahs and legendary golfers) as a flat-out psycho. He may have found the perfect niche for his astonishingly humorless screen persona with this film — just as Tony Scott has found the perfect vehicle for his gimmick-driven directorial style. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images and some sensuality.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke