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Deja Voodoo and the Law of Diminishing Expectations

How to explain the generous reviews granted to the latest film by Tony Scott, the meister of the overbearing, trashy exploitation action genre?

Deja Voodoo and the Law of Diminishing Expectations
Photo: Touchstone Pictures

How to explain the generous reviews granted to the latest film by Tony Scott, the meister of the overbearing, trashy exploitation action genre? Déjà Vu, which took in about $20 million in its opening weekend, has received generally upbeat notices, with a 60% positive rating at Metacritic and 61% from the critics deemed worthy by the RottenTomatoes management, and a number of prominent reviewers have been kind to it. But once you’ve seen it for yourself, and realized it’s no less shallow and much more troubling than similar films that got harsher treatment, you may wonder what, exactly, happened.

Is it simply an example of a reviled but financially successful filmmaker outlasting his opposition? From Top Gun through Man on Fire, Scott has established himself as, if not quite critic-proof, then certainly critic-resistant. Reviewers wag their fists at the films’ banality and twist and shout in agitation at their stylistic excesses and moral and political coarseness; they complain about the manner in which Scott’s films push our collective buttons in the most egregious and pandering way possible; yet the public refuses to listen. Scott’s movies tend to make money (Domino notwithstanding), and so he’s empowered to make more. Perhaps the capitulation to Scott’s awfulness is an example of The Law of Diminishing Expectations; maybe critics have been worn down over time, both by the collective suck-i-tude of Scott’s films and by a public that prefers synopses to criticism and can’t understand why bylined grumps can’t just relax and go along for the ride. Yet there are many reasons to loathe the film, including Scott’s penchant for brutality over thought, his standard stylistic excesses, the story’s half-baked sci-fi gimmick and, most importantly, the movie’s utter disinterest in the political ramifications of that gimmick: surveillance technology that allows the government not just to pry into American’s present-tense private lives, but their private pasts as well.

The plot finds ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) investigating the murder of beautiful woman named Claire (Paula Patton of Idlewild), whose death might be linked to the bombing of a ferry in New Orleans. Doug is empowered to peruse Claire’s history by way of a surveillance program that can literally look into individuals’ pasts. The problem isn’t that the film is poorly made; it’s a taut thriller graced with one of the screen’s most magnetic stars, Washington, as well as the lovely Patton, who gives a solid performance as the hero’s thoroughly credible love interest. The problems are Scott’s shallow approach to a potentially rich concept, his underlying cynicism and his innately reactionary politics.

Scott and his screenwriters, Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio, either don’t know or don’t care that their surveillance gimmick is a sci-fi extension of the domestic spying that’s been embraced by America’s executive branch. The filmmakers sidestep the implications of the film’s state-sponsored past-life snoop technology and instead treat it purely as a plot device, a means of pushing the action forward as efficiently as possible while posing the innocuous and vague question, “What choice might you make if you were given the chance for a ‘do over’? The end product is a glossy thriller that’s both politically irresponsible and morally obtuse.

I admit to being initially intrigued by Scott’s use of the post-Katrina New Orleans as his film’s terrorist target, particularly when combined with the film’s laser-like focus on government surveillance techniques; these elements seemed to promise that Scott, who ranks among the most morally bankrupt of filmmakers, might try to say something meaningful about a country numbed by five years’ worth of executive branch power grabs and civil liberties intrusions. Instead, Scott uses grim imagery of devastation in flood-ravaged neighborhoods as mere backdrop for his sleazy thriller, then adds glib references to some of the most horrendous mass murders of recent times. The ferry explosion that rockets us into the story is old-school Scott-cum-Bruckheimer with vivid colors, intense close-ups, and slo-mo destruction, clinical in its precision; in this one sequence, Scott combines imagery from Katrina, Oklahoma City and 9/11. But he has nothing to say about any of these catastrophes; he’s just co-opting them for mass-market entertainment. This is crass at best, amoral and repulsive at worst.

Yet a succession of notable critics have chosen to praise Déjà Vu rather than bury it. Michael Wilmington of The Chicago Tribune contends that Scott and Bruckheimer deserve credit for shooting in New Orleans. I’d rather reserve my praise for Spike Lee, whose four-hour HBO documentary When the Levees Broke didn’t just shoot there, but produced something worthy from the footage; Scott’s sojourn in the Big Easy is just exploitive. William Arnold of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls Déjà Vu “intellectually intriguing”—this in reference to a film that posits that mankind is capable of “bi-location,” then puts the audience in the odious position of identifying with a room full of F.B.I. agents who use their cutting edge technology to leer at a beautiful young woman in a shower. That they are looking at Claire in the past and she’s dead in the present makes the moment doubly repugnant; neither the characters nor the filmmakers acknowledge that the agents aren’t gathering evidence, they’re just getting an eyeful. Arnold ends his review by noting that ubiquitous producer Bruckheimer claims he’s out to make quality movies from now on; if Déjà Vu is what Bruckheimer has in mind, this is surely a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for.”

James Berardinelli of Reel Views compliments the film’s “intelligent screenplay,” only to later contradict this by noting that the film doesn’t “overthink” its own paradoxes; considering that Déjà Vu could rarely be judged guilty of thinking at all, this applause seems peculiarly out of place. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan must have been swinging from the hyperbole tree when he wrote that the film “plays like the noir classic Laura would if Philip K. Dick had written the screenplay,” only to back off by suggesting that “if the Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio script doesn’t make any sense, it does so in such a delirious and energetic way that it’s hard not to go along for the ride” (there’s that phrase!), then asserting that “…Scott, working with director of photography Paul Cameron and editor Chris Lebenzon, is expert at filling the screen with so much forward motion that the questions you might otherwise have get left in the dust.” As the most basic task of a critic is to think—especially when reviewing a film that’s determined to force thought out the back door—this is faint praise of an especially ironic sort.

It’s as if Scott’s indestructible dreadfulness makes critics approach each new title with limbo-low expectations, and they’re so surprised (or relieved) when he o’erleaps them that they’ll give the movie a pass because it isn’t as openly stupid or comfortably reactionary as the last one. Even Walter Chaw, an observant critic with a withering wit, succumbs. “The pall of our recent history hangs over the proceedings like a borrowed mourning veil,” he writes, “but Scott muse Washington is so good—and the film’s premise so loopy—that en route to touching the steadily more tiresome post-9/11 bases of illegal/omniscient surveillance and sour regret, Déjà Vu actually breathes a little.” Yeah, but at what cost? “At its heart, though, it’s still just a macho fantasy of redemption and re-fighting, Rambo-like, battles we’ve already lost.” Now this is what I came here for; if only there were more of it.

Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek states overtly what many critics imply when she notes that at least the film “doesn’t have the sadistic sheen of Scott’s loathsome revenge drama Man on Fire.” This is the same sort of standard-lowering that is pandemic in academia—granting students who put in even a modicum of effort the A’s they’ll need to get into grad school. Since when do we grade a film on a curve because it isn’t openly evil? Should we applaud Bush because he’s no Pol Pot? What’s next? Criterion Collection honors the films of Uwe Boll?

Nathan Lee of The Village Voice acknowledges that Scott is less interested in the script’s unplumbed ideas than the big explosions and action setpieces that dominate the film’s second half, yet praises it as “the most unexpected essay on movie metaphysics plunked down in the middle of a Hollywood blockbuster.” I suspect he sees more in Scott’s film than Scott does; I’d pay to watch the movie Lee describes, but only if the director was kept far, far away from it.

As many reviewers don’t even consider the film’s political implications, it’s nice to see Variety’s Robert Koehler noting that Scott’s movie had the potential to say something about the “scope of surveillance on private lives.” But he doesn’t follow through and call the film out for masquerading as a commentary on such intrusions while using surveillance imagery to provide the audience—as well as the film’s own leering F.B.I. agents—with some cheap thrills, like that flash of Patton’s breasts in the shower. Koehler also touches on Jim Caviezel’s role as “pure right wing malevolence,” but the problem here is the character’s agenda is never clearly defined, so he remains little more than an afterthought villain—a bogeyman caricature, a deadly buffoon with a big bomb. Caviezel’s extremism is a bit of misdirection, evidence of the film’s perverse confusion. Scott and his writers fail (or refuse) to recognize the kinship between the Caviezel character’s right-wing political agenda and the agenda of real world law enforcement agencies that use ever-pervasive technology to keep tabs on private citizens. The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis is onto something when she observes that the film “name-checks not one, not two, but three national tragedies [Sept. 11, Oklahoma City and Katrina] against a backdrop of red blood, white uniforms and blue-sky improbability.” But like Koehler, she hints at a hidden reactionary agenda but doesn’t examine it, settling instead for the depressingly standard complaints that “things blowed up real good” and the film is amateur sci-fi gone awry.

A few critics have seen through the smokescreen of the film’s slick technique and bubble-gum metaphysics and attacked the dubious politics at its core. In his capsule review, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum makes note of how action obliterates thought; I suspect if he’d given the movie a bit more space, he would have addressed its toxic heart. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman proclaims that “Bruckheimer must think they’re making a ‘relevant’ thriller: Terrorism! Half-burned bodies falling to their deaths! In New Orleans! All I could think was, this is what it looks like when tragedy is shoved into the Hollywood exploitation compactor.” The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson nails it: “Déjà Vu attempts to explain the ‘science’ behind the movie’s time-jumping,” he writes, “but in a drama that’s contemporary and supposedly realistic, it comes off as cockamamie. Worse, the hyperbole actually offends. Moments before the initial explosion, for instance, we watch slow-motion montages of the doomed men, women and children laughing and hugging; an old man reaching out for his adorable, backlit grandchild. And when the bomb rocks the ferry, it’s time for an operatic sequence of flying bodies, undulating waves and freeze-frame images. After 9/11, few of us look at terrorist acts casually. It’s insulting to watch this grandiloquent pornography, using shock value and Hollywood cliche to evoke poignancy.”

No kidding. It’s considered bad form to attack a film for its politics, or even to acknowledge that a big budget Hollywood thriller could make political statements in the first place, on purpose or through inattention or evasion. But a filmmaker who invokes the most terrifying real-world imagery of the past five years without bothering to say something meaningful about it must suffer the consequences—otherwise it’ll be déjà vu all over again.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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