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Beneath the average potboiler facade of `Deja Vu' lies classic noir.

November 22, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

JERRY BRUCKHEIMER, the producer-king of mass audience mayhem, is not in the habit of giving his films French titles, but "Deja Vu" is in the business of confounding expectations.

Rather than the routine Denzel Washington-starring potboiler the advertising indicates, what we've got here is a science fiction thriller that plays like the noir classic "Laura" would if Philip K. Dick had written the screenplay.

And though films routinely ask us to suspend disbelief, "Deja Vu" (literally "already seen") is a film viewers will be hard-pressed to explain to themselves, let alone anyone else. But if the Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio script doesn't make any sense, it does so in such a delirious and energetic way that it's hard not to go along for the ride.

The key notion here, a sci-fi staple for generations, is whether the past is truly past, or whether past, present and future are in some way connected via shortcuts through space and time called wormholes, shortcuts that enable people in the humble present to influence both the past and the future.

When you've got a far-flung premise such as this, it's essential to have a star who grounds the film in everyday reality, and Washington, as always, does that beautifully. An actor with charisma and intelligence to burn, he is someone who never wastes his time, never takes on projects that don't deserve to be made.

Also essential when you're trying to make a film with a plot nobody should be thinking about too hard is a strong director who makes things move at a breakneck clip. A director like Tony Scott.

Deservedly known as one of the best pure shooters in the business, Scott, working with director of photography Paul Cameron and editor Chirs Lebenzon, is expert at filling the screen with so much forward motion that the questions you might otherwise have get left in the dust.

Though Scott has made his share of fiascos, he and Washington form an especially potent combination: Witness 1995's "Crimson Tide" and 2004's "Man on Fire." Adding Bruckheimer's particular brand of showmanship to the mix also helps to take our mind off the sketchiness of some of the plotting.

The Bruckheimer touch is most evident at the start of "Deja Vu," when a terrorist bomb explodes on a New Orleans ferry, sending terrifying black and red flames 350 feet in the air and causing the deaths of 543 people.

Called in to investigate is Doug Carlin (Washington), of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a man who knows more about explosives than Alfred Nobel and looks better in sunglasses than any government employee has a right to.

One of the elements that catches Doug's eye is the fact that the body of a beautiful young woman who clearly died of blast injuries was recovered before the blast went off. This has the markings, he says, of "a unique and complicated crime scene." He has no idea.

Doug's expertise catches the eye of FBI agent Andrew Pryzwarra (a hefty Val Kilmer), who pulls him in to take part in a top-secret project run by bearded and brainy Dr. Alexander Denny (Adam Goldberg). Said project, Doug is told, involves digitally re-creating the past through surveillance cameras, a re-creation that is always four days and six hours behind the present or, as the good doctor puts it, "a single trailing moment of now."

At Doug's suggestion, the project focuses on that mysterious young blast victim, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). Because Claire is a knockout, and because she just happens to spend much of her time in her underwear and/or the shower, Doug finds himself falling in love with her just like Dana Andrews did with the portrait of the dead Gene Tierney in "Laura."

But guess what? That picture of the past may not be just a picture after all but something more malleable, which is where "Deja Vu's" already complicated plot really floats out of the realm of easy comprehension. For despite consulting with what press material call "the mega-sized brains of several world-class physicists," this film takes turns that are truly hard to understand.

What is interesting is not how little sense "Deja Vu" makes but how little that matters. If you want your films to add up logically, you're welcome to take your calculator somewhere else. But if you do, you will be missing out on some first-class genre fun.

MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes.

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