Review: Deja Vu

Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) is an A.T.F. agent assigned to investigate a terrorist attack in New Orleans when a ferry carrying hundreds of U.S. servicemen and their families is blown to smithereens. His big clue lies in the mutilated corpse of Claire (Paula Patton, "Idlewild"), an innocent victim whom Doug feels has a factor in the bombing, but he can't put his finger on the connection. Coming to his rescue is a specialized division of the F.B.I. (including Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg, sporting an ornate hairstyle that resembles a forgotten Bee Gee brother) that introduces a time-travel device that can observe events from four days earlier. Using the high-tech surveillance unit, Doug tests the boundaries of time to hunt a terrorist (James Caviezel, nicely evoking Timothy McVeigh menace) before he can detonate the weapon ... again.

Last fall Tony Scott gave the world "Domino," a putrid, borderline evil motion picture that, to watch it, felt like doing a backstroke in a pool of gasoline. It was the most visually chaotic and needlessly amped film of the last decade, and it provided indisputable proof that Scott had lost all connection to his humanity, mental stability, and most importantly, his yearning to entertain.

"Deja Vu" (IMDb listing) returns Scott to his most homogenized years: the late 1990s. "Vu" is a kissin' cousin to the 1998 blockbuster, "Enemy of the State," setting an air of hyper-technology, paranoia, and urban decay to tell a story of action and suspense. To be honest, neither film works, yet, to Scott's credit, at least this time he's made a somewhat calm movie.

Reteaming with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Scott doesn't really mind if you believe anything in the film, as long as the excitement grabs you by the collar and the suspense yellows your pants. "Vu" is a thriller first and foremost, but there are so many logic leaps and so much sludgy tech dialogue to wade through, the picture grows sleepy as it walks the thin line between iffy reality and full blown sci-fi.

The script can't make up its mind what it wants to be, eventually putting Doug in some fantastical situations to perk itself up. The best is a car chase where Doug plows down the freeway in a baby blue Hummer with a Game Boy version of the magical surveillance device strapped to his head, therefore seeing the road (and his suspect) from four days ago in one eye and the present in the other.

It's a terrific sequence, but it only lasts for a moment, and soon we're back at F.B.I. headquarters watching characters with markers try to explain to Doug (a.k.a "us," the baffled audience) how this bizarre time machine works. If you actually sit down and think about how "Vu" comes together, the movie has lost; but you can't help it. Scott eventually gives in and spends too much energy trying to justify this nonsensical plot rather than charging full steam ahead with the lunacy.

Perhaps I should be awed on some level by the picture's mind-numbing, trickster aesthetic, but mostly I was bored by what "Vu" had to offer, and, for once, it wasn't because of Tony Scott's visual roadmap. Scott softens his directorial bullying considerably for his new movie, perhaps in response to the negativity "Domino" received when it opened and closed quickly last year. "Vu" still employs a series of inappropriate zooms and absurd amounts of action coverage, but it stays in check, letting the story itself guide the rhythms of the cinematography. I doubt Scott has repented for his sins, but "Vu" provides hope that the indescribably awful years of recent cinema he's produced are behind him.

"Deja Vu" holds the distinction of being one of the first productions to use the Hurricane Katrina ruins of New Orleans as a location. The good taste to use misery for entertainment purposes is up to the viewer to decide, but I found it cast a pall over the whole film. Perhaps too many outside forces, from Katrina to Tony Scott, were dead set against allowing "Deja Vu" to be anything resembling a fun roller coaster ride, leaving the end result a lifeless, dreary thriller.

Filmfodder Grade: C-