Deja Vu (2006)

2010 #24
Tony Scott | 121 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

This review contains spoilers.

Deja VuDenzel Washington and Tony Scott have now served as star and director (respectively, as if you didn’t know) on four films, with a fifth on the way. As director-star relationships go it’s hardly Scorsese-De Niro or Burton-Depp, but I’m quite a fan of Man on Fire and I remember Crimson Tide being pretty good, so one can’t complain. (This whole “regular director-star relationship” thing had higher significance in my head. Anyway…)

Deja Vu is about a terrorist attack that Washington’s character, an official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (a natural combination only in America; known as the semi-logical AFT for short), isn’t really investigating. But he is a bit, because otherwise the story wouldn’t get started. Once it does, he gets recruited by Val Kilmer to the FBI team that are actually investigating the disaster, and they reveal a mysterious bit of kit to him… which some other review has probably already spoiled for you, so I will too: they can see precisely 4 days and 6 hours into the past.

How can they do this? Well, somewhat surprisingly, screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio (and, one must suspect by extension, Ted Elliott) have bothered to string together a selection of scientific concepts you may have heard of in order to explain it. Essentially, it’s an accidentally-created wormhole. It has loads of rules. I won’t explain them. The most significant is, you can’t send stuff back through it; you can’t change the past. And by “rule” I mean “thing set up to add dramatic tension when it comes time to contradict it in the third act”.

Deja Vu’s timey-wimey plot is quite fun, in some ways. Massively over-complicated — no one will blame you for switching off as the “how it’s done” technobabble washes over you; if you just accept this is all possible within the confines of the movie’s universe, there’s enough investigative thrills to sustain proceedings — but, if one does pay attention, a lot of it makes sense. Well, enough sense. It becomes a bit unravelled toward the end, unless you choose to believe this even more complicated theory, which uses a scant array of clues from the film — plus the desire/need to explain the plot logically — to come up with a cohesive theory that covers all kinds of stuff happening before the film even begins.

…so, I was meant to be explaining why it’s fun. Well, there’s a car ‘chase’ that takes place in both the past and present simultaneously, allowing Scott to indulge in some of his usual cars-flipping-for-no-reason show-off-y-ness (who doesn’t love a car flipping? Especially if it then explodes!) There’s also lots of narrative hoop-jumping, with plenty of clues littered through the first two acts that are paid off in the third. One of the film’s saving graces is that Scott, Marsilii and Rossio don’t spell most of these out for us — Washington doesn’t get up and say, “oh, that explains how the ambulance got here and then the building exploded and he must’ve cut your fingers off because you scratched him and [so on through numerous other minor semi-relevant clues]”; the audience are allowed to think all of this for themselves. Which is nice, because it’s obvious, but blockbusters too often just state the obvious these days. But I suppose when your central conceit needs explaining several times in lengthy dialogue scenes you assume the audience will be paying enough attention to catch the regular complications of standard film-narrative construction.

Deja Vu is kinda nonsense, then, albeit nonsense that some people have put a lot of thought into trying to explain. In spite of this, I quite enjoyed it — Washington is always likeable, the rest of the cast are up to the task of arranging themselves around him, and the connect-the-dots narrative is suitably engrossing. Factor in that Scott has toned down the visual trickery he pushed to eyeball-melting extremes in Man on Fire and Domino, and you find a half-decent sci-fi-ish thriller-blockbuster

It’s also the second film I watched in as many days featuring Friends’ Adam Goldberg playing the character he always plays in a story decisively set in New Orleans. Déjà vu indeed.

4 out of 5

BBC One have the UK TV premiere of Deja Vu tonight at 10:35pm.

Despite the sustained objections of my spellchecker, this film is not called Déjà Vu (on screen). I know, I’m a pedant.

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