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Saving the Day, Take Two

By William Goss | Film | November 11, 2010 |

By William Goss | Film | November 11, 2010 |

“Don’t worry, baby / Everything will turn out alright…”

—“Don’t Worry, Baby,” the Beach Boys

After a few years and a couple of viewings, I’m not quite ready to call Tony Scott’s Deja Vu a great thriller or anything so rash, but it does still strike me as probably one of the more inventive and thematically interesting blockbusters of the past decade.

I know, smarts and Scott, whodathunkit? A filmography including Top Gun, True Romance, Days of Thunder and Domino doesn’t exactly scream “high-concept time-travel thriller,” but it’s the very premise presented by credited screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio (the latter of whom would go on to disown the film) that keeps the exceedingly energetic director about as visually grounded as he can be these days.

Teaming up with leading man Denzel Washington for a third time (this weekend’s Unstoppable marks their fifth collaboration to date), Deja Vu sees Washington’s ATF agent combing over a crime scene — someone blew up a New Orleans ferry filled to the brim with sailors and smiling kids, and Denzel wants to use the how in order to figure out the who. The investigation has him coming across the burned, damp corpse of a woman (Paula Patton) who, despite all evidence, did not die on the ferry, but rather right before and probably at the hands of the same terrorist (James Caviezel). Luckily for him, FBI agent Val Kilmer can work with “right before,” as his super-secret team of crack scientists have cooked up a device that can see into the past by four days, no more, no less. And where Kilmer shows him a window, Washington sees a door and therefore a chance for him to go back, stop the bad guy and save the girl.

As is often the case with Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the initial destruction is treated more as garish spectacle than terrible tragedy — slow-motion shots of kids playing, followed by cranked-up shots of sailors aflame crashing into the river below — but that’s OK, because if all goes according to plan, the tragedy once overblown becomes a tragedy that never even happened. It should come as no small surprise that Washington does go back, does stop the bad guy and does indeed save the girl, but the manner in which the film gets to its conventionally crowd-pleasing climax is thankfully most unconventional.

Sure, the time-travel angle is a movie-ripe sci-fi device, but for our stoic protagonist and the wearied agencies he represents, it’s an ideal tool with which to pursue justice after failing to prevent the likes of Oklahoma City and 9/11, and in a post-Katrina New Orleans, this is one disaster that he finds himself empowered to avert. And better yet, our protagonist happens to be played by the reliably affable Denzel Washington, so it manages to be less than unseemly when his character begins to harbor a crush/borderline obsession for his suddenly resurrected victim and finds himself meeting a woman who doesn’t know just how well he knows her. (Anyone else would come off as a bit more of a pervert for his morbid fascination, no? Smarter men than I have made apt comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in this regard.)

It’s a bit of a pity that Scott, Marsilii and Rossio didn’t touch more upon these implications of voyeurism: that we as an audience are watching Denzel and friends watch her shower, sleep and go about her final days (for all we know, Marsilii and Rossio had done just that before the screenplay was punched up behind their backs). Nevertheless, Scott does get to indulge in his visual flurries when it comes to the portal into the past, as an omniscient point-of-view roves around at the whims of its controller in an effort to catch clues while the time is right, and it affords an opportunity for the present to get in on the action with a truly unique car chase along parallel timelines that not only has Denzel finally nabbing the identity of his suspect, but also sees him calling in an ambulance or two in the wake of all the collateral damage he’s caused (though, again, one trip back in time is all it takes to eliminates incidents like this that result in accountability like that). Just when was the last time that a Bruckheimer production cared about the little guy in the crushed car anyway?

Shortly thereafter, Washington does in fact travel back four days in time to the day of the incident in question, and the film’s focus begins to shift from that of unlikely justice to unlikely romance, as Patton finds herself saved from the clutches of Caviezel and yet skeptical as to who this man is and how he knows so much. Soon, the three are re-united on the lower level of the ferry as the clock ticks away, and what a shame it is that our villain opts for loud automatic gunfire with which to blow away guards instead of something with a silencer, so that Scott might’ve granted us just one shot of hero, damsel and bad guy facing off as the innocents above cheer on, three hundred or so lives unaware of how their fate dangles in the actions of these three strangers. If that wouldn’t have been suspenseful…

Sure enough, Denzel plugs the baddie and plunges off the boat with the bomb while Patton swims away, and here’s where the film comes to its most curious conclusion — he must sacrifice himself in order to save so many, a humane gesture and one infinitely more patriotic than anything cooked up by Caviezel’s unhinged soldier. It’s a happy ending for the cost of a ticket that happens to come at the cost of the presence of our reliably affable star, and yet who greets Patton on the shore but a new Denzel, someone facing a now-altered investigation for the first time and someone who doesn’t know just how well she knows him. It’s a particularly nifty means to a necessary end: he went back in time after all, stopped the bad guy, saved the girl and gave up his own life so that she may live on… with dreamy Denzel.

Cue the Beach Boys:

“Don’t worry, baby / Everything will turn out alright…”

William Goss lives in Orlando, Florida. But don’t hold that against him.

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