There’s an old saying about how you will forgive a movie anything so long as it works on you. This idea applies perfectly to Déjà Vu, which has to be one of the most far-fetched thrillers ever committed to celluloid. Denzel Washington plays ATF agent Doug Carlin, who is brought in to help investigate a New Orleans ferry bombing that has left 500 innocent people dead. At a special government office, an agent named Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) informs him that there is a special lead in the case. A technician named Denny (Adam Goldberg) runs a new computer program that composites images obtained from satellite and heat-ray cameras. When combined, you get (essentially) a movie of the past where you can switch angles, zoom in on various elements, and hear intimate conversations. The program works like streaming video on the internet: it comes in a flow, with no option to rewind or fast-forward. Everything takes place in real time, only it is seen four days and six hours later.
Pryzwarra wants Carlin to look at the footage of the dock as it streams in to see if he can locate the bomber. Carlin has a better idea. He suggests focusing in on the home of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), a young woman whose dead body washed up on shore around the same time as the bombing. It was her stolen car that housed the explosives, so he figures that if they watch her, they can see who her abductor was and then nab him. Eventually, it becomes clear to Carlin that the government has underplayed their new toy. When confronted, Pryzwarra acknowledges that time travel is possible and that Claire is still alive in the past. After seeing his partner, Larry Minuti (Matt Craven), murdered by the bomber, Carlin demands to be sent back a few days in order to save Claire and, possibly, the innocent people killed on the ferry.
I’m a sucker for time-travel movies, and Déjà Vu does some really unique things with the premise. One of the best scenes has Carlin chasing the killer’s car, even though it’s four days in the past. (A special mobile device lets him see where the guy was.) Now there’s something I never thought I’d see. The scene is tense because with one eye, Carlin is looking at an image of the killer’s vehicle from four days prior; with the other, he’s watching – and trying to dodge - present traffic.
All the twists and turns hooked me as well. The idea that someone could go back in time to prevent a crime or tragedy is intriguing. At some level, we’ve probably all had the fantasy about it. I know that, personally, I’ve wished I could go back in time and warn people about the Sept. 11 attack. Director Tony Scott – re-teaming with Washington for the third time after Man on Fire and Crimson Tide - effectively cranks up the tension as we watch Carlin use his future knowledge to alter the past.
Although you could never mistake it for being realistic, Déjà Vu works primarily because it establishes its own rules and then plays fairly by them. Why does Carlin go back in time to save Claire but not his former partner? Because he can only go back four days and it’s too late for Minuti. There’s none of that constant jumping back and forth that is featured in so many entries in the time-twisting genre. And that surprise at the end? It actually makes sense given the whole “changing the course of a river” explanation provided by Denny earlier on. Sometimes movies like this cheat you; they pull things out of their hat that don’t match up with how the premise is established. In this case, writers Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii stick to their own rules.
This is not to say that the whole time-travel premise doesn’t present some questions. For instance, when Claire’s apartment is first searched, someone notes that Carlin’s fingerprints are all over the place; logic would indicate that they could not have been put there until after he went back in time (which, at this point in the story, has not occurred). So how would fingerprint dusting reveal them before he does so?
In fairness, I love this kind of thing. These films always make my head spin as I try to figure out the logistics. It’s just part of the appeal.
Denzel Washington has played cops/agents many times before, but he does it well again here. I liked his rapport with Kilmer and Goldberg. It’s good, solid casting. It gives nothing away to say that Jim Caviezel plays the killer, and he does so with menace, even if his character’s motives are never fully developed. Perhaps the thing that keeps Déjà Vu from being a great movie is the fact that the bad guy is a little too much of an enigma.
Déjà Vu plays on our shared idea of hindsight – how we wish we could have prevented things from happening or changed the course of something that didn’t go right. There’s scarcely a moment in the film that is plausible, but that’s okay. This is fantasy, and it’s fantasy that is entertaining and suspenseful throughout.
( out of four)
Deja Vu is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images and some sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Deja Vu
Return to The Aisle Seat