After the delirious toxic purge that was Domino, it's perhaps unsurprising that Tony Scott should follow up with a relatively steady, sedate and solid affair. Not that the high-concept, sci-fi-inflected policier Deja Vu is lacking thrills and spills: indeed, barely is the film five minutes old before an almighty terrorist explosion aboard a New Orleans ferry kickstarts a plot of head-spinning complexity and amusingly brazen preposterousness. The task of investigating the fatal blast falls to federal agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), whose brilliant deductive and forensic skills, we're told, were previously put to work on the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. A decade on, Carlin is again faced with terrorism of the home-grown variety as the culprit turns out to be deranged 'patriot' Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel) – his identification as such aided by a futuristic, quasi-surveillance device which allows users to examine past events in very close detail and from numerous 'camera' angles.
The screenplay – by Terry Rossio (Shrek / Pirates of the Caribbean) and feature-debutant Bill Marsilii – sensibly doesn't waste much time explaining the exact details of this uber-gizmo: what passes for exposition is delivered in breezily offhand, blind-em-with-science style by tech-heads played by Adam Goldberg and Elden Henson. So by the time Carlin realises that the experimental technology might be able to physically send him back in time – and thus foil Oerstadt's homicidal plan – the audience has already learned that the best way to enjoy Deja Vu is to sit back, enjoy the ride, and not ask too many tricky questions. While the picture has already been subject to admirably rigorous thematic analysis, its political subtexts seem muddled at best, schizophrenic at worst.
On the one hand, Deja Vu is a chilling, reactionary endorsement of the 'surveillance society' which has become so insidiously widespread in so many countries over the last few years: we're not far from the Minority Report dystopia in which criminals can be handily arrested and sentenced before they've actually committed their crimes – and the film thus seems quite cravenly tailored to America's current Climate Of Fear, as perpetuated by the ruling radical Republican right. It also seems slightly incongruous to set such a story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – Scott includes aerial shots of actual devastated neighbourhoods – an event which didn't exactly show federal agencies in a positive light.
The film's presentation of the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, seldom less than unquestioningly approving. Specifically mentioning Katrina – and the Oklahoma bombing – could also lay the film-makers open to charges of tasteless opportunism, although the very fact that such a big-budget Hollywood production was shot in New Orleans can only serve as a much-needed boost to the local economy.
The background presence of Katrina mainly serves, however, to emphasise that many of the most potent threats to America lie not from sinister foreign elements, but from much closer to home: governmental neglect (of the levees), and the wider issue of natural catastrophies exacerbated by climate-change. The script, meanwhile, is scrupulous to underline the USA's status as a nation of immigrants: it's conspicuously careful to include characters whose colourful, 'foreign' names – Kuchever, Pryzwarra, Stalhuth – are tricky to spell and pronounce. Even Washington's Carlin falls into the latter category, this otherwise no-nonsense bloke repeatedly and pedantically insisting that the surname be said with the stress on the second syllable (perhaps echoing some Cajun ancestor whose name would have been pronounced 'car-lan').
But as well as being ethnically and culturally diverse, present-day America is also notable for its over-fed, over-weight inhabitants: few straight dramas can have had quite so many porky folk in the supporting cast. Most conspicuous is a dismayingly gone-to-seed Val Kilmer, often shown here peering ruefully into the surveillance screens – perhaps in the hope that he can somehow rewind to his brief spell as a genuine leading man. This display of decadent flab also serves to emphasise just how well Washington, still impressively buff at 51, is aging – but the dual Oscar winner is so genially charismatic here that he'd be the dominant presence even if surrounded by athletic young Adonises.
Indeed, Washington's old-fashioned star-power proves invaluable in keeping proceedings watchable over the course of an excessive running-time, and through several attention-sapping rocky patches (including what must be one of the silliest car 'chases' ever committed to celluloid.) It seems perverse to criticise a film entitled Deja Vu for being repetitive, but such comment can be justified on the basis that, by the end, we realise that none of the characters has actually experienced proper 'deja vu' at all. To go into the exact details would, however, involve spoiling what is an enjoyable – if somewhat predictable – finale, one which wraps things up in sufficiently satisfying fashion to confirm Deja Vu as marginally above-average popcorn fare… even if it's really nothing you haven't seen before.
29th December, 2006
DEJA VU : [6/10] : USA 2006 : Tony SCOTT : 126 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Sunderland (UK), 15th December 2006 – public show (paid £5.50)