When we first see Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) in "Next," a confusing new thriller directed by Lee Tamahori, he's sitting alone in a diner sipping a martini and looking strikingly like Richard E. Grant after a terrible night's sleep. Cris, we soon learn, is a sad-sack Las Vegas magician whose rather astounding psychic abilities (he has the gift of being able see what happens to him two minutes in advance) have failed to attract much of a paying audience. Consequently, he's reduced to supplementing his income at slot machines and card tables -- a talent that has, not surprisingly, attracted the attention of casino security and a federal agent named Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore).
What the casino people want from him is obvious. What the feds are after is not -- and fans of the Philip K. Dick story "The Golden Man," on which screenwriter Gary Goldman based the script, will find themselves at as much of a disadvantage as everybody else. Unlike Dick's story, "Next" is set in the present, the man in question is neither golden nor particularly irresistible to women (though you might wonder if some voodoo was involved in the seduction of Jessica Biel's character), and the feds' interest in him is strictly humanitarian.
Early in the film we learn that a nuclear bomb belonging to the Russian federation has gone missing and somebody intends to use it. Surely, a situation as grave as this would require the coordinated efforts of worldwide intelligence communities, so "Next" takes us directly to the heart of the operation: a top federal agent (Moore) who will stop at nothing to capture a clairvoyant magician who might be able to help locate the bomb.
This, needless to say, inspires little confidence in the system, not to mention the movie, especially since the magician in question just wants to be left alone to pursue his dream girl. Liz Cooper (Biel) is the apparition he's been doggedly stalking since his recently expanded fortune-telling abilities first alerted him to her imminent arrival in his life. Granted, he's also worried that if he volunteers to help the authorities, he'll spend the rest of his natural life strapped to a chair with his eyelids pried open, watching newscasts to divine the location of missing children and tax frauds. You can see his problem. If this is how matters of national security are handled, we'd all do well to hole up in a rustic motel with somebody cute, forget about saving the world.
For an action thriller based on a Dick story, "Next" is peculiarly low-tech and hokey. Along with his ability to see two minutes into the future, Cris is able to dodge bullets and, once he's warmed up, peel off various layers of himself to test out alternate outcomes of any given situation. As Cris romances Liz, he's dogged by the hard-driving Ferris, a cookie so cartoonishly tough her jaw seems constantly on the brink of jutting out beyond her face and punching someone. Moore has never looked more tense or, weirdly, more bored than she does here.
In fact, "Next" comes across like a standard clock-puncher for almost everyone involved. We never do learn what it is that the terrorists -- a small band of attractive French and German ne'er-do-wells -- are up to, or why they choose the top level of the Los Angeles Times parking structure as the location of their final showdown. That part stuck with me, though. I kept wondering for hours afterward: How did they even get in there without magnetic I.D. cards? Otherwise, the title pretty much sums it up.
"Next." MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In general release.