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Unstuck in Crime 

I was trying to remember the last time I saw Denzel Washington step from a car in super-slow motion, as he does in one of Deja Vu's opening moments. Like here, he was well-dressed and carried himself with an air of authority. He was wearing, as I recall, aviator sunglasses, same as here. Ditto, did he softly gum the hell out of his slight overbite in the way that the ladies find so disarming. Then I remembered: nearly this exact same sequence happened in Man on Fire, the first film Washington made with director Tony Scott. Despite Deja Vu being smash-mouth action meets sci-fi-lite and Man on Fire being smash-mouth action meets cinema verite (cinema kabloom-ite?), the similarities only increased.

What a fascinating way for a director to break the fourth wall, I thought. First, you build a career using roughly the same style, shot selection, color palate, explosion proximity, high-octane chase scenes and general disregard for collateral damage in every one of your films. Then you name one of those films Deja Vu. Trippy.

As is his wont, in his latest film Tony Scott uses his trademark slo-mo coupled with his trademark jump cuts and wobbly-cam to tell a very elaborate yet very straightforward science fiction story that, for all its theoretical science and time-travel logic (designed to blow every single one of your minds) is still just a movie about cops and robbers. Okay, it's about cops and terrorists, but if cops and terrorists isn't the post-9/11 equivalent of cops and robbers, I don't know what is.

You've got a good guy (Denzel Washington) and a bad guy (Jim Caviezel). One's gonna do a crime, the other guy's gonna try and stop him. The only difference, in this case, is that the good guy -- ATF agent Doug Carlin -- doesn't learn about the bad guy until after he's blown up a New Orleans ferry.

The film begins with that explosion, told in five minutes of near continuous (and nearly unbearable) slow motion, Scott milking our collective fear of domestic terrorism for all it's worth. In the aftermath, we meet ATF agent Carlin -- who, through a series of set pieces designed to show that he's an old-fashioned gumshoe -- single-handedly jumpstarts the case.

This initiative gets him noticed by FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer, chubby to the point of being neckless), who wants to bring him into the fold of a special unit he's just formed to handle cases just... like... this. Kismet. Pryzwarra wants Carlin, he says, because time is of the essence, and he needs a man who can look at a crime scene just once and "tell us what's there, what's missing, and where we should go."

Carlin accepts, after token resistance -- something akin to, "shucks, why'd y'all want liddle ol' me?" -- and is taken to the task force's compound, a place that feels real strange from the very beginning, and led into a room with banks and banks of computer screens. This, we realize, is where the science fiction happens.

Carlin becomes the fourth member of a crew tailor-made to exhibit racial diversity in exactly the way white people expect. Pryzwarra (the white guy) is the leader. Shanti (Ericka Alexander) and Denny (Adam Goldberg) are both theoretical physicists, though that fact is opaque at first. Shanti, perhaps because she was born at the crest of the Black Power movement or something, is the radical one, while Denny -- because all Jewish people in Hollywood have to act like Woody Allen -- likes his string theory neurotic and conservative. The bulk of their relationship is spent with Shanti forwarding radical hypotheses and Denny rebutting, "But... that's... just... cray-zy."

The team shows Carlin a "live" feed of the ferry from "four days, six hours ago," telling him that this is a super-secret satellite system that can zoom and buzz around people at almost any angle. Carlin's not stupid, though, and soon they have to tell him the truth -- Shanti and Denny were playing grabass one day and stumbled upon the most significant discovery since Einstein's special relativity: time travel. Or, at least, time voyeurism. From there Carlin takes it upon himself to actually change the events of that morning, saving the passengers on that ferry as well as a very special little lady named Claire.

Credit screenwriters with doing a good job of ramping up the audience's sense of disbelief at the satellite story, making it very improbable very quickly. This allows the audience to decide that it's cock-and-bull before the super-sleuth main character, which makes us feel smart and willing to buy into the high-concept roller coaster to follow. Although "follow" is loosely used because the action takes the forefront here, as with all Jerry Bruckheimer productions, and thus the tricky exposition is left to breathless 30-second chunks.

For all its quasi-intellectualism and philosophical preening, though -- "What if," Carlin asks at one point, completely without irony, "there's more than just physics?" -- Deja Vu caves to formula ceaselessly. Once Carlin and Claire finally make contact, after having known each other an hour, tops, they kiss. This is moments after Claire was convinced Carlin had been trying to douse her in diesel and burn her alive. She's either the world's most forgiving person, or we're witnessing the world's most absurd application of Stockholm Syndrome.

But of course they kiss. Following the Bruckheimerian Method for action plot development, you have to have some emotional release before the climactic battle, even if it's just a kiss from out of absolutely nowhere. It's what makes Deja Vu -- like Michael Bay's supposed magnum opus The Island -- a good premise for a think piece made hopelessly muddy with action.

Deja Vu
(Wait for DVD)
Rated PG-13
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer

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