Deja Vu (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Wedding the phrase "Jerry Bruckheimer production" with the words "intelligent screenplay" might seem to be an unimaginable mismatch, but it has happened. Déjà Vu, the new thriller from Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott, impresses with both the complexity of its storyline and its willingness to allow things to develop at their own pace without interjecting a lot of needless action scenes into the early proceedings to keep viewers attentive. Déjà Vu contains its share of action, but it comes later in the film. In fact, one could argue that the movie features one of the most original car chase sequences ever committed to celluloid.

This is a time travel movie - sort of. I hesitate to call it science fiction, because there's little science to go along with the fiction (although the movie makes a game try to incorporate a few Einstein-based concepts into the screenplay). Something like Minority Report is a science fiction thriller; Déjà Vu is more a straightforward thriller that uses time travel as a device. Of course, with time travel come time travel paradoxes. That's where the fun lies. If you go back in time, can you alter events or do you become part of them? Part of Déjà Vu's enjoyment is that, while it doesn't ignore the paradoxes, it doesn't overthink them, either. It allows the viewer to toy with them in his/her mind, then gives an unambiguous interpretation. Were he alive, Carl Sagan might not be impressed but, in terms of allowing audiences to do more than gaze slack-jawed at the screen, this is light years ahead of anything Bruckheimer has previously attempted.

The director is Tony Scott, whose resume is so maddeningly inconsistent that it makes one wonder whether there are two men working under the same name. Déjà Vu is the product of the "good" Scott. He directs in a no-frills manner, keeping things moving and injecting a fair amount of suspense. There aren't that many surprises - at least for the viewer who pays attention - and that's a blessing. Twists in time travel movies are almost always cheesy. The lack of narrative contortions does little to diminish the movie's impact. More importantly, Scott curbs his tendencies to exhibit his "artistic side" by doing all sorts of weird things with the camera. That part of the director's repertoire is kept in check.

It's Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, February 2006. The city, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, is about to take another blow. A ferry explodes just off shore, killing more than 500 people, many of them members of the military and their children. It's identified almost immediately as an act of terrorism. Enter ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), whose initial observations earn him the admiration and attention of FBI agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who runs the elite agency taking the point in the investigation. Carlin is recruited and soon finds himself looking through a window in time that gives amazingly clear images of events that occurred exactly four days and six hours ago. Pryzwarra's explanation is that it's a digital composite of satellite images, but Carlin doesn't believe him. He thinks it's something else, and he's determined to find out what. Meanwhile, Carlin discovers a connection between the ferry bombing and the murder of a young woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). With a Laura-like obsession, Carlin begins to study everything about Claire, watching her life unfold as time ticks away to the moment when her life will end.

The first half of Déjà Vu is a police procedural with a twist. Carlin is investigating the murder and terrorist act, but he mixes traditional and non-traditional methods. His advantage is the time window, but it has its drawbacks, as well. Those include a "no rewind" option and a limited range. The latter leads to the previously mentioned car chase, which is unlike anything attempted in a movie. The rest of the first hour relies on the appeal of programs like CSI as Carlin builds his case against a domestic terrorist (Jim Caviezel), but there are gaping holes and unexplained evidence.

Those looking for Bruckheimer's trademark action scenes have to be patient. They arrive but, aside from the car chase, all occur during the second hour. That's when Déjà Vu becomes more routine. The movie never abandons its premise, but the first hour is more intellectually engaging than the second. By the time the things shift into high gear for its last act, we're in familiar action territory. The ending is satisfactory and satisfying, and it is presented with enough clarity that there won't be much head scratching.

Denzel Washington plays Denzel Washington, good cop. This isn't a great performance, but Washington wasn't brought in to show off his acting chops. He's here to give the audiences a friendly face they can identify with. Likewise, there's not much for performers like Val Kilmer, Matt Craven, and Adam Goldberg to do except move the narrative forward. The most interesting work belongs to Paula Patton, who plays a dead woman. It's not hard to understand why Carlin is haunted by her.

Déjà Vu is a little long, but it covers a lot of ground. It's an imperfect motion picture, but it has lots to recommend it, and the more egregious flaws don't become apparent until post-movie ruminations. Whether or not it earns the distinction at the box office, Déjà Vu is being positioned as the premiere Thanksgiving weekend action movie. It's more flavorful than a lot of films that have claimed the title over the years, and it's definitely no turkey.

Deja Vu (United States, 2006)

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, James Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Bruce Greenwood
Screenplay: Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio
Cinematography: Paul Cameron
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1