Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), an agent with the ATF, arrives on the scene of a horrific ferryboat explosion in New Orleans. As the various agencies investigate the cause of death of hundreds, including many service people, Carlin lets his senses lead him to the bridge crossing the Mississippi. There, he discovers a possible accelerant, confirming the explosion was probably caused deliberately. He soon meets FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) who introduces Carlin to a special project he is working on with Denny (Adam Goldberg), Shanti (Erika Alexander) and Gunnars (Elden Henson). They appear to have a very sophisticated surveillance system set up and they give Carlin a cock and bull story about how they are amassing information from surveillance cameras at various locations, to provide a look four days into the past. But Carlin realizes they have more than that; they are able to zoom in, move through walls, hear Claire (Paula Patton). Claire, a victim who washes up before the accident happened is deliberately made to look like a victim of the ferryboat explosion, making her their number one lead. As they watch her, Carlin becomes suspicious and soon learns this ragtag group of people has created a time machine of sorts, but it can only look four days in the past. Soon, they decide to send a letter to Carlin, two days before the accident, leading him to the potential terrorist, Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel). But Carlin doesn’t get the message and his partner does, leading to a dangerous situation. But if they can send a printed message to the past, couldn’t they send something larger?
“Déjà vu”, directed by Tony Scott (and from the first frame you will recognize it as one of his films) and written by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio (he was one of the writers of “Pirates of the Caribbean”), sets up its own logic, which is fine in a fiction film, but in the end, it cheats on its own rules, robbing the film of any suspense it may have been able to generate. Part of the point of working in fiction is that you are able to set up your own rules, govern your new universe. If you have to cheat on your own rules for the climax, you haven’t done that good a job setting up the universe in the first place.
As soon as Denzel struts into the middle of the crime scene, you have hope for the film. Perhaps it will turn out okay. Just perhaps. And Washington is Washington. He has played cops in numerous films and this is no exception to that work; he is a commanding presence, forceful and mesmerizes you on the screen. As Carlin, he appears to have seen many crime scenes, adding both experience and world weariness to his persona. As soon as he arrives, he lets his instinct lead him to the nearby bridge and the discovery. Then he has an assistant pull surveillance tapes and immediately spots the motorcycle driver who stops at the side of the bridge, at the same time as the accident.
But as soon as Carlin comes into contact with Pryzwarra and his team, the story moves into a more fantastical realm. The film has to work hard to make us believe what is happening. To accomplish this, the filmmakers have created a scene in which Carlin watches surveillance tapes of Claire. Okay. That could work. But the scene goes on for an eternity, as Carlin watches this character move through her life and we hear him bark instructions at the team. “Can we move in?” “What is she reading?” This leads to quick intercut shots of hands moving joysticks, cameras zooming in, etc. The shots of Claire are given a high tech treatment, which does little to disguise the fact that we are simply watching another character without interacting in her life. Worse, Carlin is doing the same, simply watching her as a passive observer. It doesn't make for the most exciting viewing. However, the filmmakers also want us to believe Carlin is becoming attracted to her, simply by watching her.
Unfortunately, this scene also occurs at the beginning of the second act. Many action films fall into the trap of a slow second act; the detective is investigating, the wrongly accused man is trying to prove his innocence. Generally, this is where the writer’s and director start to kick in the story. The first act had some good action, now this is why. Hopefully, the third act will wrap things up with a bang. But just watching another character is not very interesting.
Naturally, with a time travel slant on the story, whatever happens in the beginning of the film will be revisited during the conclusion. But this time, the hero will be participating. Carlin is now part of the action, racing to stop Carroll from blowing up the ferry boat and all of those service men ready to party in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Now attached to Claire, he gives her a specific set of instructions, mainly stay off the boat, but she has seen one too many damsel in distress films and naturally doesn’t follow his instructions, making herself a liability to his actions.
I can’t really tell you how “Déjà vu” cheats, because I would have to reveal the ending. But how lazy is it for writers to create their own set of rules and then cheat on them. If you realize the rules aren’t going to work, change them at the beginning of the story. Make them work. That’s what you do when you are writing a piece of fiction. If you make the rules, your universe, and the people’s actions believable enough, the audience will go along for the ride. Because the writers didn’t bother to work out these details, the film is even more of a letdown than it needed to be.
As soon as the first frame of film hits the screen, you will recognize this as a Tony Scott film. I could tell from the first moment of the trailer. No other filmmaker appears to have been so clearly influenced by MTV and made it his signature style. Scott rarely uses one shot when he can use one shot. In the beginning of the film, and near the end of the third act, Scott’s camera lingers over various servicemen, jovial with anticipation for the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration. There’s an officer with his wife and small daughter. There is a group of school children with their teacher. There is an elderly couple, ready for a vacation. There is a woman passing out beads to more service men. Rather than show a single shot of the officer, his wife and their child, Scott’s camera lingers on them for seconds, then jerks away and we then see the same thing from a slightly different angle, before jerking away again. Few shots are static or longer then a couple of seconds. Perhaps Scott thinks this will imbue a sense of drama within his film. It merely resembles an overlong music video.
Tony, no amount of camera work or over editing will help disguise the problems inherent in a bad screenplay. If your story is good, you don’t need to do this type of thing all the time.
The one good thing about the film is that it is set in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. In one scene, they follow a lead into the Ninth Ward and the cameras reveal the devastation still prevalent in that area. Perhaps this scene will help call some attention to the fact that the city still has large areas of destruction, where the garbage hasn’t even been cleared up yet, and the rebuilding has yet to begin. But in order for that to happen, people would have to see the film. I don’t think a lot of people are going to see “Déjà Vu”. Perhaps they feel like they already have.
Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), an agent with the ATF, arrives on the scene of a horrific ferryboat explosion in New Orleans. As the various agencies investigate the cause of death of hundreds of people, including many service people, Carlin lets his sense lead him to the bridge crossing the Mississippi. There, he discovers a possible accelerant, confirming the explosion was probably caused deliberately. He soon meets FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) who introduces Carlin back to a special project he is working on with Denny (Adam Goldberg), Shanti (Erika Alexander) and Gunnars (Elden Henson). They appear to have a very…
Even Denzel is entitled to the occasional flop.
And that flop is “Déjà Vu”.