Science-themed movies are so predictable. In my review of “The Sinking of Japan”, I mentioned the tried-and-true scene that invariably pops up when the film attempts to explain its science. At first, the scientist character will indulge in techno babble, but of course someone in the room (usually our hero) will utter the phrase, “In English, Doctor!” or a variation thereof. To which the scientist would grab an apple, a piece of paper, or whatever was at hand to demonstrate his techno babble in layman’s terms using the show, don’t tell method. “Deja Vu” goes for the piece of paper. As soon as the scene came up, around 50 minutes into the film, I just had to smile. But wait, in case you thought it was over — it’s not! Precisely 5 minutes later, it happens again!
But I digress.
In “Deja Vu”, Denzel Washington plays ATF agent Doug Carlin, who is called in when a New Orleans ferry full of Navy seamen are blown to smithereens by a deranged “patriot” (Jim Caviezel, “Unknown”). During his investigation, Carlin encounters the mutilated body of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton, “Idlewood”), a woman he has never known, but soon becomes obsessed with. Carlin’s investigation takes a turn for the odd when FBI agent Val Kilmer (looking a tad less svelte than his Batman days, I might add) recruits him for a top secret government project that, Kilmer’s character claims, is able to see every angle of the crime scene from four days earlier thanks to continuous satellite reconnaissance. Of course it’s all bullshit, as Carlin eventually learns (with the aid of a $2 laser pointer, no less) that what Kilmer’s team is actually doing is spying on the past (four days and some hours ago) through a manufactured wormhole.
Insert “In English, Doctor!” sequence.
What makes “Deja Vu” work is the characters, and in a glitzy, fast-paced (albeit over two hours long) action adventure, it counts for something that we come to care for Carlin’s need to save Claire’s life. Days of spying on Claire in the past in her most intimate and most vulnerable moments have done something to Carlin, helped in no small part by some abstract sense of d’jÃ vu. (Why exactly did she leave a message for him at work just hours before she died?) But as lead Brilliant Scientist guy Denny (an amusing Adam Goldberg) informs Carlin, everything that has happened has happened, and there is nothing they do will change that fact. Then again, if that’s true, then who has been leaving messages for Carlin, telling him “u can save her”?
n a lot of ways, the film’s thrills rely more on continuous plot development, as Kilmer’s Pryzawarra, Denny, and Carlin attempt to piece together Caviezel’s madman bomber move-by-move, hour-by-hour, and day-by-day. Eventually, the clues begin to mount, and the picture begins to come into focus. Along the way, the script by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films) injects some clever self-fulfilling plotlines. In many ways, despite its iffy-at-best science, “Deja Vu” is quite the smart thriller. It’s easy to get lost among the plotlines, but to his credit, director Tony Scott (who last worked with Washington on “Man on Fire”) manages the whole shebang with great clarity and ease. And, best of all, he doesn’t put the viewer in a seizure (ala “Domino”) doing it.
Although very much a “Jerry Bruckheimer movie” in the sense that it boasts great production values, a Grade-A cast, and a talented director calling the shots, “Deja Vu” is not a thrill-a-minute manufactured blockbuster. It’s quite the (kinda) thinking man’s big movie, with Washington anchoring the whole thing with an understated, charming performance. Some of the film’s best moments are the seemingly inconsequential ones, such as how Carlin interacts with his fellow Feds, or the easygoing way that he strolls through his crime scenes. As the love interest, Paula Patton provides the perfect obsession. Patton is quite gorgeous, and throw in a little gratuitous nudity (used for great comic effect, of course), and you can see why and how Carlin becomes so enamored with Claire. Why shouldn’t he be? We are.
Budgeted at over $80 million in production money, “Deja Vu” fared poorly at the domestic box office, recouping just $64 million. Fortunately, its high concept premise and slick execution helped the film to a very acceptable $111 million at the overseas box office, bringing the film’s final take to $175, more than enough to declare “Deja Vu” profitable. It is also a validation of sorts that while Americans aren’t quite ready for a “Jerry Bruckheimer movie” that is not all car chases and things going boom, at least the world is.
“Deja Vu” should fair much better on DVD, with the caveat that it isn’t the action-pack joyride you usually find in movies stamped with the Bruckheimer logo. Which doesn’t mean the film doesn’t excel at action when it gets around to putting the gas to pedal. The film’s final 30 minutes or so is breathtaking, and there is a great car chase about halfway into the film, where Carlin must track Caviezel’s bomber through Louisiana’s highways. And the catch? The chase is taking place four days apart! If you missed it in theaters, give “Deja Vu” a second shot on DVD. It’s worth your time.
Tony Scott (director) / Bill Marsilii, Terry Rossio (screenplay)
CAST: Denzel Washington … Doug Carlin
Paula Patton … Claire Kuchever
Val Kilmer … Agent Andrew Pryzwarra
Jim Caviezel … Carroll Oerstadt
Adam Goldberg … Denny
Elden Henson … Gunnars
Erika Alexander … Shanti