Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Time Travel in the Big Easy: Denzel Washington’s Déjà Vu (2006)

Apparently the people at Touchstone Pictures decided that what the American public really needs to see is a New Orleans ferry with a bunch of Mardi Gras partiers on board get blown to smithereens at 10:40 am. Thus does producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s Déjà Vu grab your attention with a big bang. This pseudo-scientific, terrorist-laden Denzel Washington thriller begins in the most manipulative way possible—no grumpy, ordinary people on board. No, director Tony Scott has to include lots of smiling families, children playing, and even one little girl dropping her doll into the murky water before she gets immolated in a great fireball as various burning sailors and SUVs plunge into the sea.

Fortunately, Firearms, Tobacco, and Alcohol Federal Agent Doug Carlin shows up to save the day. With his general ability to look more intelligent and dignified than anyone else, Denzel Washington can even make this slightly silly film look good just by walking on the scene wearing shades. In no time, Agent Carlin finds some bomb fragments on the ground as well as some black chemicals on the underside of a nearby highway bridge that greatly help the investigation of the crime. Oddly enough, a burnt body washes up on shore about a half hour before the explosion, so Agent Carlin goes to help out with the autopsy. He notes that the young woman Clare (Paula Patton) makes for an unusually attractive corpse. Carlin visits her flat in the French Quarter, and finds her refrigerator magnets spelling out the words “You Can Save Her.” Mystified, Carlin then runs into a FBI Agent played by the ever-jowlier Val Kilmer (I still remember back when he played a handsome Jim Morrison in the Doors movie). Kilmer’s character introduces Carlin to a top-secret government-funded time portal machine of sorts where one can look back in the past on a big screen, in this case about three days, and basically spy on anything in the New Orleans area. Now clearly infatuated with Clare’s moving image, Carlin directs the wise-cracking time portal crew to place the young woman under highly sophisticated time surveillance because he assumes, correctly, that she can lead all of them to the terrorist whose distorted sense of patriotism echoes the reasons behind the Oklahoma City bombing.

Déja Vu is clearly not overly concerned with the niceties of real-life terrorist investigations, but cinematographer Paul Cameron creates a pleasantly sun-dappled New Orleans with gold and blue filters, and there’s something endearing about watching Denzel Washington fall in love with the screen image of the not quite dead woman of three days ago who can sense that someone is watching her. Agent Carlin eventually figures out that they can actually send messages, and maybe even a person back in time to save both Clare and the ferry. Time travel movies (Donnie Darko comes to mind) have the ability to plant clues in the narrative that hint at an altered “time branch,” like the message saying “You Can Save Her,” and its fun to try to decipher why is that ambulance in a burnt shell of a building? What are those bloody bandages doing in Clare’s trashcan? A later journey through time will explain all.

The end of Déjà Vu circles back to the beginning where the same little girl drops her doll out of ferry full of people smiling. By the time Agent Carlin and the terrorist tangle on board, the film loses all sense of plausibility in its made-for-TV claptrap of contrived plot twists, but for a period of time anyway, Denzel Washington brings a curious sort of emotional honesty to his efforts to save Clare. Also, the filmmakers deserve credit for sticking with the New Orleans setting even after the Hurricane Katrina decimated the city in midproduction.

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