Review: “Deja Vu”

A return to formulaic thrillers for Director Tony Scott, “Deja Vu” plays out like a slicker and more realistic hybrid of a Bruckheimer movie combined with 1994’s rather silly “Timecop”. Whereas that Van Damme film thoroughly embraced its over the top sci-fi concept, Scott’s work shies away from that angle as much as possible resulting in something with far more of a regular and grounded action movie feel that just happens to have a touch of the fantastical (ala the superior “Face/Off”).

Whether that approach worked or not is hard to say. “Deja Vu” is a perfectly well-done and easy to engage with popcorn film, but it’s a no brainer – a straightforward stop the terrorist from blowing up a boat plot with the gimmick of advanced surveillance and time travel. With the exception of its amazing explosion sequence which sets up the mystery, a solid car chase scene, and some cool visuals involving 3D imagery, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it and ultimately it will disappear very quickly from your mind.

It’s hard to say why this approach was taken. There’s a definite feel that the film’s script was originally something more sci-fi in tone and explored the concept to greater effect. When Scott came along, most of that went out the window in favour of realism. The sci-fi elements have been kept to an absolute minimum, so much so the one scene that requires the technobabble explanation of the ‘time window’ technology is a bit of a mess and grinds the film temporarily to a halt.

In pulling off this serious approach, Scott also seems to have pulled some of the story’s smarts as well – there’s no real twists, little to no character, and a quite streamlined plot that ultimately doesn’t justify the film’s two-plus hour runtime. Little touches have survived though – the film often playing the whole ‘effect precedes cause’ trick with refrigerator letters, bloodied bandages and smashed up crime scenes seen early on, and then how later showing us how they came to be.

The ending suffers from a cliched “Star Trek” style ‘time paradox’ trick that makes for a happy outcome, even if its ultimately one big cheat. Worse still the last act features some moments of absolute character stupidity, noticably a scene in a bathroom between the leads who waste a lot of time faux flirting with each other even though the tragedy is only an hour away from happening.

These goofs are offset by the interesting conjecture that no matter how you try and change the past, it will yield the same result. Indeed these moments are part of an overall a sense of restraint to Scott’s filming this time around. In recent years he’s gone more and more into stylised territory, capping off with last year’s woeful “Domino”. There’s not a ultra-high contrast, over saturated grainy shot in sight with “Deja Vu”, though the quick cuts and extreme close-ups that are his signature are still there albeit thankfully toned down a little.

Performances are solid across the board – Denzel doing his fairly routine truth-seeking but shrewd cop, complete with thankfully less than the usual amount of grandstanding moral speeches that seem almost a pre-requisite for any film he stars in. Proven actors like Kilmer and Goldberg are fine but relatively subdued support. Caviezel’s few moments on screen come with the requisite intensity, but offer no insight into the villain at all short of his religious conviction.

The real star here is Paula Patton who delivers a stellar job with probably the least amount of screen time of any of the major characters as the woman in trouble turned love interest. The lady truly steals the show with a strong but vulnerable performance that promises a great future ahead. When its on, the action looks great and there’s excellent use of the New Orleans location throughout the picture portraying it as a vibrant and bustling city. The production design is strong, the set design nicely low key, and the score decent for the subject matter.

Overall “Deja Vu” is exactly what it appears to be – an enjoyable, safe, light sci-fi action vehicle that aims only to entertain and for the most part succeeds. With those involved it has a more professional polish than you might expect, but it lacks much depth or real smarts to set it apart from other films of the like.