Déjà Vu

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: When domestic terrorism claims the lives of hundreds of decent Americans in New Orleans, ATF investigator Doug Carlin is mortified to discover that a beautiful woman is among the dead, and confused to be told that she died before the accident. However, this is nothing compared to his confusion when FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra tells him he can look back in time to see who committed the atrocity. As he watches the past, a question arises in Doug’s mind: is he restricted to looking?

It’s an unusual Mardi Gras for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington). It begins with an unthinkable outrage in New Orleans when a ferry carrying both children and US Navy sailors is blown up, killing over five hundred people. In the course of his investigations, two significant things happen: firstly, Doug meets FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who is taking a keen interest in the crime and Doug’s impressive sleuthing capabilities; secondly, Doug is called to the post mortem of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), a pretty woman found in the water, and is told that rather than being a victim of the explosion she was tortured and killed beforehand.

As Doug searches Claire’s house, he intriguingly finds the message ‘u can save her’ written in fridge magnets, but the relevance of this doesn’t begin to play on his mind until Pryzwarra lets him know what’s going on: with the help of a super-computer called Snow White, his team of FBI scientists, headed up by supergeek Alexander (Adam Goldberg) and intense time specialist Shanti (Erika Alexander) can see into the past. Four days and six hours into the past in fact, and anyone in New Orleans can be watched from any angle, with the system’s limited range extended by use of a mobile ‘goggle rig’. Initially, the energy-hungry computer programme is described as a strictly one-way stream of information, but as Doug’s intuitions get him closer to identifying the bomber, he starts to become fixated by the idea of rescuing Claire from her destiny – that is, being kidnapped by the shadowy terrorist and having her vehicle stolen. And although an initial experiment into sending a message to the past doesn’t quite go to plan, Doug decides to risk everything to save the girl, and maybe many innocent souls too.

The late Tony Scott was no doubt very grateful to have a stalwart actor like Denzel Washington prepared to repeatedly work with him. Washington is engaging, affable, always ready to flash a smile, but capable of shocking bursts of action or passion. That said, even at the very top of his game Denzel would have struggled to keep Déjà Vu from sinking under the weight of its utter preposterousness. For a start, the science is completely barmy and the science fiction thrown together as the rickety plot demands, with the happy accident of the ‘time window’ just happening to cover the right bits of New Orleans, and the gadgetry of the ill-named ‘goggle-rig’ just a clunky device (in all senses of the word) to liven up the film with a conceptually brave but naff-in-execution car chase, the hunter tracking a quarry from more than half a week ago.

Furthermore, whilst the writers do their level best to seal off inevitable time-travel plot holes, one insuperable (if admittedly brain-bursting) paradox remains: how can you stop something happening which has already happened, when the information you use to stop it only comes to light because the thing has happened? If you stop the thing from happening, you also stop the subsequent fact-finding, and therefore you don’t do the things to stop it, and you’re into some sort of infinite loop.

To be fair, the film wears the time travel element of its tale fairly lightly, and in some respects is to be commended for not trying to over-explain itself (Shanti draws a quick diagram of divergent realities and on everyone goes). What’s disappointing about Déjà Vu is that the ‘time window’ aspect apart, the film is thoroughly and drearily predictable. Carlin’s partner at the ATF, of whom we see little, gets it in the neck in both versions of history; there’s a lazy love interest that inevitably develops between Doug and Claire, built largely on the fact that she looks great in her smalls; Kilmer and Washington have an uneasy relationship but end up as friends, brought together by ignoring big boss Bruce Greenwood when he demands the project is shut down. Jim Caviezel’s terrorist doesn’t have anything more shocking to reveal than a grudge; and whilst there’s some tension in the reliving of the ferry leaving dock (the scene that opens the movie), the resolution is fairly run-of-the-mill.

Crucially, the writers, actors and director seem so fascinated about looking back in time that they abandon any idea of character development, so often the first casualty of action movies. Carlin is classic Washington, though you can tell that Denzel isn’t working – or being worked – very hard, as he’s moody as hell one second and all wisecracking smiles the next. Patton, as I have hinted above, is mainly tasked with stripping to her underwear, whilst the main reason for Kilmer to be in the film is to spark conversation about how chunky he looks.

As for the director, although Scott’s direction isn’t as laboriously flashy here as it is in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, that doesn’t mean there’s much to cheer about. Scott doesn’t carry off patriotic flag-waving half as effectively as Michael Bay, and despite a dedication to its citizens the film doesn’t enlighten us about New Orleans either. Okay, we’re shown the backdrop of houses devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but the movie doesn’t actually say anything about the situation so it feels slightly exploitative.

I feel wrong for saying it, but Déjà Vu is a fun film on the basis of a high ‘enjoyable tosh’ quotient and the star power of its leading man, who even in cruise control is capable of elevating a project from the straight-to-DVD bins. However, with a big-movie budget and talent that is capable of occasional greatness, it can’t be right that this movie isn’t as much fun – or as well thought out – as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s legendary Timecop.

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