On a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film. While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind. While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love. I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into. Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.
Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years. The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer. When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight. Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall. Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination. And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.
I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night. While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right. We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent. At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in. Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape. There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere. There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them. Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments. The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.
In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together. It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses. This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then. Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before. In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them. We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming. Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.
Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here. He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care. Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real. Max is an entirely unlikely hero. He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work. He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level. Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him. However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing. It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence. Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage. Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.
Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent. It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges. That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head. He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move. This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story. Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay. He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max. Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity. Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices. Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law. McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught. However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell. Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling. There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him. If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film. It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here. In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him. He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.
The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase. The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested. If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it. As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor. He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level. These skills are not learned easily or quickly. Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication. And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence. He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.
Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning. His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned. He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive. Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively. Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind. He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.
Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa. However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem. Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene. The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life. Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body. It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent. This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.
Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix. He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion. You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure. Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended. It’s stellar work by him all around.
I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters. While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level. It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards. These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls. Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.
One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline. All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters. Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it. There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment. All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion. Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now. The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline. The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here. It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters. The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on. There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times. It’s an amazingly well edited movie.
Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists. The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film. It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality. Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax. Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments. The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie. It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence. Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least. It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me. I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.
The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly. Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film. So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral. What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot. I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did. It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some. I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end. It still does. Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout. It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones. It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before. It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene. It never gets repetitive or dull. These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value. There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well. Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch. The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before. And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired. I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.
We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome. The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire. It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.” Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos. Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act. As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension. This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used. On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing. The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama. I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation. This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection. The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film. It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.
This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller. Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats. It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance. Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals. I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done. I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart. Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year. Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much. However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.
I only got turned onto the existence of this movie last week, and the trailer did blow me away. It seemed like a very visually captivating piece of art in the violent crime genre. I certainly do not feel the trailer was wholly misleading, as it does capture some of what the film has to offer, but it did give me a somewhat exaggerated expectation. Dead Man Down is indeed a very good film from the director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, with a slow building substance and good performances. It felt like it was giving me a different approach to the revenge film archetype focusing more on the emotional depth of those affected by these tragedies instead of delving into the clichéd Death Wish type of scenario. I do have some critiques to levy against the movie, partly due to expectations, but in general, I did find some enjoyment with Dead Man Down.
Victor (Colin Farrell), a rising gangland player, has infiltrated the crime empire run by ruthless kingpin Alphonse (Terrence Howard), with the single purpose of making Alphonse pay for destroying his once happy life. As he meticulously orchestrates his vengeance from his high-rise home, Victor watches and is watched by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious young woman who lives in the apartment across from his. On the surface a fragile woman-child, Beatrice seethes with a rage of her own. When she uncovers Victor’s dark secrets, she threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own campaign of retribution. Each fixated on avenging the past, they devise a violent and cathartic plan that could change their worlds forever.
As I said, this film focuses on its emotionally and physically scarred victims of injustice instead of shoot ‘em up action. That’s what really captivated me about the film as it went on. It does take a while for the film to get into the depth of our protagonists, but that ultimately fits with the film’s style. It slowly builds the relationship between Victor and Beatrice from a fractured need for violent retribution to something far more of the heart and soul. This slow development might not be for everyone, but I did enjoy those moments when the film arrived at them. The gradual progression paid off well, and that’s mainly due to the very good performances and the quality of the direction.
While I’ve rarely seen the potential of Colin Farrell fully realized on film, I’ve had a lot of faith in his talent, and I like seeing him in films. There are a few I do need to see where he is very charismatic and potentially wildly entertaining. In this film, we get subtlety and depth. We, firstly, see the glimpses into his character’s pain. The tragic loss he has endured is shown through in very touching moments of him watching a home movie of his family. Where the standard action revenge film has the lead essentially turning into the Punisher, this film highlights the pain within and deals with the substantive choices of the heart and mind that these actions have. What we see grow out of the relationship with Beatrice is indeed a rediscovery of humanity for him. Colin Farrell really made me feel the anguish of the love Victor forges with Beatrice. It’s genuine and touching, and it’s what makes the film worthwhile.
Noomi Rapace is equally excellent. I felt for Beatrice possibly even more than Victor. Her life has also been shattered, but she is left with the physical scars to always remind her of what she’s lost. The injustice she has faced is internally and externally crippling. The neighborhood kids assault her, insult her by calling her “monster.” Her pain evokes sympathy at every turn, and her screaming at Victor to give her revenge is something we cannot fault her for. Rapace puts in a beautiful performance of heartbreaking depth, but also, we see that heart mend along the way. She and Farrell do work very well together striking a substantive emotional chord that resonates. I was emotionally effected several times during their most painful and poignant scenes together. With the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, these scenes are given weight and prominence through fine cinematography and effective use of music.
Now, I also really like Terrence Howard as an actor. I’ve seen him in enough to really enjoy his charisma and intelligence. As Alphonse, he does carry some very good weight. It’s not a powerhouse performance, but he does get his scenes to shine in. He can be ruthless and cunning as well as a little bit intimidating. I did like what he did in this role, but I do feel there could’ve been more added to him. While we know what he has done to deserve this methodical campaign of torment and revenge, we never really see him doing anything on-screen to further that perception of a vile, cold blooded crime lord. Alphonse does still have people he answers to in the hierarchy of organized crime, but we certainly get the impression he is substantially formidable. I feel Howard’s best scene is when he meets with Victor to have him weed out the one responsible for this torment. It’s an excellently staged, shot, and acted scene that I wish went on a little longer. I felt it ended a little abruptly, but nonetheless, it is a stellar scene that I really liked.
The film also has some nice small performances by Armand Assante as Alphonse’s boss, and F. Murray Abraham as Victor’s Hungarian father-in-law. Both actors bring their best quality forward to really give some strong support to these minor but no less pertinent characters. Abraham certainly has more screentime to work with, and more emotional content to convey. All the rest of the supporting cast does a really fine job. No weak links here at all.
What action scenes there are in Dead Man Down are well done. I particularly liked the chase / escape scene after Victor’s sniper attack. It’s very well conceived and executed with stellar results. While there is handheld camera work here, the editing is relatively conservative allowing for the geography of the action to be maintained. I was never lost in these sequences. The visual grammar was very solid and flowed nicely. As always, that’s partly due to a very good editor that knows the right way to let the action play out in a coherent fashion. The rest of it is an intelligent director and a damn good director of photography in the form of Paul Cameron. He has previously worked with Michael Mann on Collateral and Tony Scott on Man on Fire. Both films had very different styles, but were both helmed by filmmakers who knew how to competently and intelligently shoot action and hefty drama. Dead Man Down is no different as it is very well shot with its own grounded style, but with special artistic touches that I found very intriguing and visually enjoyable.
The score by Jacob Groth, a regular collaborator with Oplev, is very well done accentuating the emotional strengths of the film. Generally speaking, his work here is very effective and sets the right tones at the right times. Not much really stood out, but his score was very pivotal in enhancing the moments of the film that hit my strongly on an emotional level. I think that says plenty. In the context of the movie, there’s only a single rap song, and that’s from the outset shootout sequence. Admittedly, I am not a fan of that genre of music, but it was used quite well and I enjoyed its momentary inclusion.
The story we have here is presented and executed quite well. While it did take a while to get me to a point where I connected with it, emotionally, it’s great once it does get there. We finally get into the meat of the story that’s unfolding here, and I do believe Niels Arden Oplev does quite a good job at telling that story. He never really rushes through anything. He takes the time for the weight of the characters and their actions to be absorbed by the audience. We get to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of these characters. While I was never wholly energized by the film, I was engaged by it. I do wish that the film delivered more on the artistic visual awe that I was ensnared by in the trailer, but as it is, I did generally enjoy what I experienced.
However, the main critique I have against the film is that the film really felt like it was building towards something more substantive and emotionally powerful than the climax it gave us. Simply put, without delving into spoilers, we essentially get a straight up action sequence that more than borders on your standard action revenge film climax. It’s not a badly done sequence, but it wasn’t mind blowing either. That’s the one thing the trailer really drove me towards expecting – action scenes presented in an artistic, mind blowing fashion. Something that would be visually beautiful while maintaining a graceful substance of emotion. Thus, the climax left me underwhelmed. It gives us a moment or two of substance, but aside from the initial fiery slow motion explosion, it’s generally your standard action film climax with gunfire everywhere and splashy stunts to jump start it all. It felt a little shallow for a film that had so much depth, and a tad cliché for something that seemed to give us a fresher perspective on the revenge thriller idea. I also felt that what happens to Alphonse was a little too much out of a B-grade action movie because it allowed for no emotional poignancy for the characters or story. I think the film demanded something with more dramatic weight and emotional satisfaction. Again, the climactic action sequence is well made, but from the artistic point of view, it left me wanting something more substantive.
I would buy Dead Man Down when it hits DVD. I think it has enough admirable and valuable qualities that I could enjoy watching it again. The performances are quite solid all around delving us into a realistic well of emotion. The development of the love between Victor and Beatrice is beautifully done with two excellent actors really digging down deep to pull at my heartstrings a few times. The film only has about three action scenes in it, and they are all well done. Still, it is not something to expect a lot of excitement or high charisma for. If there’s anything that does deter anyone from it, I believe it is that fact. The film deals with subtle, grounded performances with a gradual pace that does pay off, but might leave some audiences cold. You’re either going to become invested in these characters or you are not, and if not, then there’s really little else to engage your attention. Now, you may notice a peculiar WWE Studios logo attached to this film, as in the professional wrestling company. I really believe that’s only there because one of their wrestlers, Wade Barrett, has a very minor role as a mafia henchman. He has maybe three or four lines in the whole movie, and is mostly background muscle in a suit. WWE Studios likely had next to no creative input on this film as it’s certainly far above their low grade, cheap schlock standards. Don’t let that peculiar logo at the start of the film throw you off. Dead Man Down is mostly very good, but overall, it’s just pretty good. Regardless of my trailer induced expectations, it does have a few shortcomings with the climax and the lack of a particular emotional veracity, but if any of what I’ve conveyed to you is to your tastes, I feel the movie is worth checking out in one form or another with the right set of expectations.
I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven. It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes. So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes. Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie. The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that. It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.
In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world. Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony. Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories. For Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs. However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man. His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent. Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen. The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.
This film showcased some potential. I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself. As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall. The action is sensational most times. There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing. There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire. The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed. Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action. Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable. More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap. The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world. Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally. However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie. Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie. It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.
I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film. I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists. The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation. He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release. You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches. However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth. The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough. These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them. Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles. He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance. However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into. I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in. I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting. You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion. While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.
The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina. She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present. The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake. I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance. It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that. It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development. Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table. Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance. I was left with a rather blank impression of the character. Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.
I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film. His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been. Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts. There’s no natural flow to it. It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up. It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless. I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias. I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before. It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out. No such moment exists in this film. The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid. There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface. It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose. He is also greatly low key. One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities. I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.
Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable. Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie. Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine. There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love. However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain. She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation. Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey. Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding. It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role. She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process. I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end. I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.
Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma. He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen. He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with. You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy. He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup. This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors. No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances. Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version. That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively. It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie. Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.
I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going. Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity. How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity. There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity. There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene. It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.
Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations. The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it. It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette. The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness. Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence. Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes. Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it. Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well. The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards. It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future. It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses. However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore. I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.
The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design. While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB. Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB. I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film. Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct. There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment. Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today. So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there. As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.
Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film. It looks very slick and smart all the way through. His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes. It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went. I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.
Everything in these worlds is smartly designed. The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world. With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations. Everything has a practical and logic design to it. Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.
However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script. I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot. The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself. We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out. We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB. We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them. We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters. They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.” That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated. While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary. The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale. I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way. The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread. The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough. Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it. Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed. Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine. So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them. It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.
There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias. No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in. They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations. This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all. Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.
I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film. The action is marvelously well done and inventive. Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action. He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography. There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film. Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up. There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass. Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself. I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion. I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one. Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.