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Déjà Vu

Solid Sci-Fi Action

Over a career spanning three decades, Tony Scott has directed some of Hollywood’s most stylish, ultra-violent blockbusters (Domino, Man on Fire, Enemy of the State, True Romance, Top Gun). Déjà Vu, a science fiction/action/romance, offers up more of Scott’s hyperactive visual style, but thanks to Denzel “Mr. Gravitas” Washington (his third time with Scott at the helm), a solid supporting cast, a clever, if familiar, premise, and suitably spectacular visuals and action sequences, Déjà Vu ends up being far better than the sum of its parts suggests at first glance.

After a deadly bombing results in more than 500 fatalities, Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), an Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent, appears at the scene to help out with the ensuing investigation. On his own, Carlin finds several clues, all pointing to an act of domestic terrorism. Carlin also sees a connection between the bombing and the discovery of an unidentified woman’s battered, bruised body downriver from the bombing. Carlin identifies the dead woman as Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), a local woman whose connection to the bombing seems tangential or coincidental.

Carlin’s investigatory prowess gets noticed by Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), an FBI agent working for a super-secret task force. Pryzwarra invites Carlin to temporarily join the task force. Pryzwarra lets Carlin in on a top-secret project that can record a wide range of visual and auditory information in minute detail. Carlin discovers that he’s watching events unfold through a “time window.” The time window technology, however, can only display and record events that occurred four days ago. Convinced that Claire’s death holds the key to the terrorist’s identity, Carlin and the scientists begin watching Claire’s last days and hours before her murder. But watching Claire has unintended effect on Carlin: he begins to fall in love with her.

Story wise, screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio had to confront or explain away the usual brain-teasing paradoxes that come with using time travel as a plot device (e.g., future and past selves co-existing simultaneously, changing past events so the future no longer exists, thus erasing the preconditions for time travel). Moviegoers and television viewers have shown in the past (e.g., the Back to the Future trilogy, The Time Machine, Seven Days) that they're willing to overlook a time travel paradox or two as long as the story doesn't get too convoluted or confusing for them to follow.

Déjà Vu gets it wrong, though, in choosing the romantic subplot over the prevention of a deadly bombing to motivate Carlin's desperate attempt to reverse time. Elevating the romantic plot over everything else is less about internal story logic than it is smart, cross-demographic marketing, under the assumption that women will be pulled into the theater by the combination of Denzel Washington's charisma and the romantic subplot. But here's the problem: Carlin never actually meets Claire. He voyeuristically, obsessively watches her through the time window, minus the reciprocity necessary for conventional romances..

Déjà Vu is a Tony Scott film through and through. That means audiences can expect rapid-fire editing, over- and under-saturated film stock, frenetic Steadicam work to "energize" every scene, slow-motion shots to introduce major characters or to maximize the emotional impact of action beats, car chases, massive explosions, and techno-fetishism. The covert agency's command and control center could have been borrowed from Enemy of the State, Scott's earlier foray into techno-fetishism and technophobia, e.g., high-end computer workstations, high-definition video screens, state-of-the-art sound equipment, and socially challenged science geeks to serve up expository information or comic relief as needed.

While Déjà Vu may be derivative, it does have Denzel Washington adding emotional depth to an otherwise limited, underwritten character. Likewise with a supporting cast that gives watchable performances. Scott shows more self-control and discipline than he has in last five or six films. Déjà Vu certainly fits his oeuvre, but Scott doesn’t so much minimize his editing and camera tricks as allow moviegoers the opportunity to follow the action cleanly and unobtrusively.

Still, it’s an odd film where we can overlook time travel conundrums (and Hummer-sized plot holes), while we can’t overlook the shortcomings inherent in a romantic storyline where the characters don’t meet and if (the operative word here is “if”) they do, it’s not enough for moviegoers to invest anything except passing interest (likewise with the murky domestic terrorism angle). Perhaps Scott and his collaborators tried to do too much with too many genre elements. More likely, though, they didn’t try hard enough.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars