Thursday, February 28, 2008

Vantage Point: Point of far too many returns

Vantage Point (2008) • View trailer
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, action violence and relentless gunplay
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.28.08

Barry L. Levy's screenplay for Vantage Point may have seemed like a clever, can't-miss concept on paper, but it's paralyzingly inept on the big screen.

To explain:

In the aftermath of an assassination attempt on the U.S. president, Secret Service
agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid, center) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox,
right) examine the footage obtained by American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest
Whitaker), in an effort to see where the shooter was concealed.
Way back in the mists of time, the superlative 1960s horror/sci-fi TV series The Outer Limits aired an episode titled Controlled Experiment, which concerned a pair of Martian researchers who, intrigued by our quaint custom of murder ("which only happens here," one of them notes, "on this weird little planet"), scrutinize an incident involving a jilted floozy who blows away her unfaithful lover after he steps out of the elevator leading to the lobby of a low-rent hotel.

Thanks to a "temporal condenser," which can reverse, slow down and speed up time like some amped-up DVD player, the Martians study the incident from every possible angle, and even freeze the action to interfere with salient details.

On paper, a clever idea. Watching at home, however, viewers quickly grew tired of seeing the primary action — the descending elevator, the lobby confrontation, the bullet emerging from the gun — over and over and over again ... not to mention the golly-gee-whiz noise and light show that accompanied the use of the temporal condenser, also broadcast over and over and over again.

Vantage Point suffers from the same problem.

Familiarity really does breed contempt.

The setting is contemporary, the event a photo-op in a crowded Spanish city square, as U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt) steps to a podium and prepares to open a landmark summit on the global war on terror. Seconds later, he has been shot; Secret Service agents scramble to protect our chief of state, while the panicked crowd attempts to flee before anything else happens. Explosions follow; chaos erupts.

We witness this event on the monitors within a TV news truck parked on the outskirts of the plaza in question; producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) cuts between on-site cameras. She's vexed because one remote operator doesn't follow instructions, and annoyed because the on-air talent is prone to injecting her political views into what should be unbiased reportage.

Then the unthinkable erupts; as Brooks and her control room crew stare, shattered, at the aftermath, the scene flares out like a candle.

And film director Pete Travis "rewinds" what we've just seen in fast reverse, re-setting the clock to a few seconds before noon, and unspools the events again ... but this time from the point of view of veteran Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid).

Another 10 minutes or so of slightly altered exposition, and Travis does this again.

And again.

And again, and again, and again.

A few rounds of this, and last week's preview crowd groaned every time we zapped back in time, and no wonder: Travis' technique is the virtual death of drama. Repeatedly enduring the same explosion isn't the slightest bit interesting, although apparently Travis would disagree; he clearly loved the rising plume of white smoke, since he uses that scene every single time.

The point, in an attempt to defend Levy's gimmick, is that we learn a little bit more each time, thanks to our ability to witness the same events from differing viewpoints. Motivations emerge; apparent coincidences become acts of design; supposed heroes are revealed to be villains.

It's the classic Rashômon scenario, but that Akira Kurosawa drama wisely relied on only four subjective accounts of the rape/murder that fueled a subsequent courtroom trial ... and these differing versions of truth were separated by other bits of dramatic exposition.

Travis and Levy, on the other hand, drag us through the same events so many times that I lost count. Indeed, I jokingly muttered to my Constant Companion that we'd probably next slog through from the vantage point of the little girl with the ice cream cone, and damned if that didn't happen. More or less.

The sad truth is that these characters simply aren't interesting enough to sustain multiple scrutiny; Levy's script offers no back-story to anybody beyond Quaid's dedicated Secret Service agent. Everybody else does little but shout, shoot and run around a lot, which gets numbingly boring.

Until the third act.

Having finally exhausted characters through whose eyes we could watch it all again — I'm surprised Travis didn't tap a stray dog — we then move to the propulsive finale, which involves a protracted car chase through the streets of this attractive Spanish city. And, like the overly redundant repeat scenarios of acts one and two, this vehicular pursuit goes on ... and on ... and on.

Rest assured, this action sequence exploits every tired car chase cliché since the dawn of cinema. Roger Ebert must've gotten giddy over the number of times he could holler "Fruit cart!"

And I dunno what kind of car Quaid is driving, but I want one; it's obviously able to withstand any punishment.

This film's other major problem, best dissected after the fact, is the script's utter stupidity. No U.S. president would expose himself to such danger, nor would any such conference be "introduced" in so public a setting, with angry demonstrators within spitting distance of the stage.

No "Spanish policeman" would be allowed to bypass a metal detector simply by flashing a badge. No news story of this importance would be handed to a truculent, untrained little twit who'd first argue with her producer, then burst into girly tears when the shooting started.

And the important one: No ruthless, hardcore terrorist would jeopardize his entire mission because of a sudden flash of compassion.

Vantage Point also suffers from an affliction that usually only infects teen-oriented horror flicks: the "idiot plot," which gets its name from the fact that the story lurches forward only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times.

I cannot imagine how Travis and Levy obtained an A-level cast that includes Hurt, Quaid, Weaver, Forest Whitaker, Matthew Fox (TV's Lost), acclaimed Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega and leading Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer. Worse yet, I can't understand how Travis could have obtained such uniformly stiff, uninspired and clumsily unpersuasive performances from just about everybody.

Quaid and Whitaker, bless their hearts, are the only ones who bring more to the table than the scraps teased from Levy's paltry script.

Based on previews that we first saw almost a year ago, Vantage Point apparently was intended as a 2007 release. Somebody at Columbia must've gotten cold feet and held the film back. The only mystery, then, is why this turkey got big-screen exposure at all, instead of going straight to home video.

But that, like pretty much everything else about this film, is something we'll never know.

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