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Wasn’t it just eight years ago that Nick Stahl was being groomed for Hollywood stardom, and started off his campaign with a major starring role in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”? Nowadays you’ll find the former John Connor plying his trade on a variety of direct-to-DVD movies, having produced an astounding eight — count’em, eight — movies in 2010 alone. Mind you, we’re not talking about cameos here; Stahl was the male lead in five of those titles, and had worthy supporting roles in the rest. Stahl already has five titles upcoming in 2011, including a regular gig on the TV show “Locke and Key”. Evan Oppenheimer’s “The Speed of Thought” is one of Stahl’s 2011 offering, and although moderately budgeted, was surprisingly quite good.
Stahl plays Joshua Lazarus, a telepath (or “scoper” in the movie’s parlance) who works for the U.S. Government (run by “Fringe’s” Blair Brown) in order to help pay the bills at an orphanage for similarly gifted kids run by the kindly Sandy (the inconceivable Wallace Shawn). Sandy’s mansion is like Professor Charles Xavier’s of “X-Men” fame, but instead of guys who can make snowballs and run through walls, these little tykes can all read your minds. Being that they’re quite dangerous unsupervised, the Guv’ment have made a cushy deal with Sandy whereby he supplies them with, essentially, spies for various bad deeds around the world. Human wiretaps without all that warrant baggage, if you will.
There aren’t that many scopers in the world, but there is Joshua, his friend Kira (the always “meh” Taryn Manning), and Anna (a somewhat boring Mia Maestro), who Joshua meets during one of his less than savory gigs for the Government. Being a scoper is all fun and all — cheating at poker is financially rewarding, and using your powers to pick up hot chicks in bars can be equally awesome — but it also comes with a pretty hefty price tag. Like, say, your life. Scopers usually don’t last past the age of 29, which is when they start going a little nuts. Our hero Joshua has just turned 28, which means the voices in his head that he can’t control are getting louder, and the end is, alas, near. This, as you would imagine, has left our hero in quite the solemn mood.
You would expect a movie about guys who can read minds while working for shady Government types to be quite action-packed, or at least, thriller-ish. Think “Push” with a pre-”Captain America” Chris Evans as an per example. Or, yes, even the “X-Men” films. Evan Oppenheimer, who writes and directs, either didn’t have the budget for a rollicking action-adventure, or that was never his intention to begin with. There isn’t even any action in the film until well past the hour mark, when our hero goes on the run with his new ladylove from said Government types. Action junkies will be hopelessly bored by the general lack of gunplay or physical action of any kind, but strangely I found myself not minding too much. Then again, I’ve always been a sucker for movies that tries to seriously explore this type of “problems” as it relates to the real world.
It’s unavoidable that “The Speed of Thought” will be hindered somewhat by its budget, with the psychic moments never really all that convincing. (By the way, who knew foreigners in foreign countries “thought” in English? Now that’s convenient!) The majority of the film’s mind-reading scenes usually involve actors standing in front of a green screen in some hazy, dream environment that reminded me of two actors in a play on stage. Visually speaking, “Inception” this ain’t. So Oppenheimer had to work around that, and kudos to him, because I thought he did a pretty good job of knowing what he had to work with and tailoring his script around his limited resources. Once you get past the somewhat clunky first 20 minutes or so, “The Speed of Thought” is surprisingly very engrossing.
Of course, it helps that Nick Stahl, despite doing a gazillion movies a year nowadays, is still a pretty damn good actor. A must, given that he’s onscreen almost the entire time, and there are plenty of moody moments where Joshua Lazarus sits around contemplating his inescapable mortality. Stahl has always had the type of face that just lends itself well to somber characters. Taryn Manning comes and goes as the plot dictates, while Mia Maestro could have used a little pep in her step. As it is, she’s pretty weightless, which makes me appreciate Stahl’s performance even more. Considering just how much work he’s doing in the direct-to-DVD market nowadays, you’d think Stahl would go all Steven Seagal or Wesley Snipes on us by now and just phone it in. The kid apparently still cares enough to act his ass off, so good for him.
Evan Oppenheimer (director) / Evan Oppenheimer (screenplay)
CAST: Nick Stahl … Joshua Lazarus
Mía Maestro … Anna Manheim
Taryn Manning … Kira
Wallace Shawn … Sandy
Blair Brown … Bridger