Friday, August 3, 2012

Total Recall: Thanks for the memories

Total Recall (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite generously, for intense, relentless violence and action, brief nudity, sexual content and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Whatever else may be true, this sucker moves.

Ultimately, a bit too much.

Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) thinks he is about to experience a
harmless, James Bond-ian fantasy that he'll retain as a pleasant
memory. Alas, reality is about to trump fantasy, when Quaid discovers
that his life as a blue-collar factory worker isn't quite as "real" as he
has been led to believe.
Director Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall starts well and has much to recommend it, most notably plenty of striking production design and not one, not two, but three imaginative, cleverly filmed and all-stops-out chase scenes.

Unfortunately, the frantic pace grows tiresome after that third pursuit, particularly since we’re only halfway through the film by then. Wiseman and a veritable gaggle of scripters — Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon and Jon Povill — simply don’t know when to let up.

This film suffers from the same problem that derailed the second Indiana Jones epic (Temple of Doom): all chases and furious activity, with almost no respite. The characters never get a chance to catch their breath, and neither do we. Successful action flicks alternate between pell-mell activity and quieter moments: the latter for reflection, plot advancement and perhaps some tension-easing quips.

Wiseman’s update of Total Recall is almost without humor, grim or otherwise. While it’s true that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s outsized presence and personality overwhelmed the 1990 version, at least he cracked wise now and again. This remake’s Colin Farrell barely gets a chance to smile.

Let it be said, as well, that this new version doesn’t stray any closer to the Philip K. Dick story — “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” — on which both films are (very) loosely based. The reality-bending premise is present, as is the notion that our hero’s “false” memories might be genuine (or not) (or not not). Beyond that, Wimmer & Co. have grafted an entirely new narrative atop this mind-twisting concept.

Not a bad thing, to be sure, and this new version takes far greater pains to establish its credible future dystopia: all the more reason to be annoyed when the frenzied melees prevent our being better immersed in what seem to be fascinating background details.

The time is a century or so in the future, after chemical warfare has poisoned the majority of our planet. Only two nation-states have survived: the upscale United Federation of Britain, and the blue-collar “Colony” — formerly Australia — on the opposite end of the globe. Colony resident Douglas Quaid (Farrell) commutes daily to a grinding factory job in Britain, where he helps build robotic policeman on an assembly line.

The journey between nation-states takes place on a giant “subway” dubbed the Fall, which cuts directly through the center of the planet, avoiding the hottest part of the core. This is an audaciously absurd concept — one wishes to know how the hole was drilled, and the “tracks” laid — but it’s visualized with impressive credibility by production designer Patrick Tatopoulos: not just the tunnel and its huge conveyance, but the plush seating accommodations within. Very 2001: A Space Odyssey-ish.

Quaid chafes at the dull repetition of his job, although he has the benefit of returning each evening to his gorgeous, loving wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), a law enforcement officer. But he has been troubled, of late, by repetitious dreams that involve running away from gun-toting soldiers bent on capturing him and killing his attractive companion, Melina (Jessica Biel).

Vaguely unsettled by these dreams, and further motivated by curiosity, Quaid heads into the local red-light district and stops at the offices of Rekall, a company that can chemically implant the vivid memories of a long-nursed fantasy: untold wealth, sports stardom or espionage derring-do. The latter appeals to Quaid, who we’ve seen reading an early Ian Fleming James Bond novel (droll touch, that).

The firm offers only one warning: Subjects cannot request implanted memories that might match their real-world activities, because subjective replication could irreparably damage the brain. No problem there, Quaid figures; his life has been as dull and drab as the Colony’s ever-present grimy rain.

Except ... that’s not true. Rekall technicians detect evidence that Quaid already is an espionage agent of some sort; before the poor guy can process this disturbing surprise, the place is raided by soldiers. And, putting active proof to the news he has just been given, Quaid quite effectively dispatches the initial assault team. By himself.

Alas, that’s only the first wave. Now on the run, Quaid does his best to elude pursuers during a furious foot chase through the balconies, building tops and back alleys of this slum-like Colony enclave. This sequence is a masterpiece of editing by Christian Wagner, and Tatopoulos’ production design gives the setting a strong Blade Runner vibe, again all to the good.

Thanks to clues left by his former “self,” Quaid learns that he’s actually an undercover government agent named Hauser, tasked with infiltrating a Colony rebel alliance led by a shadowy figure named Matthias (Bill Nighy). Melina, the woman from Quaid’s dreams, appears to be Matthias’ trusted lieutenant; the alliance has been formed to oppose a nefarious plot by Britain’s Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), who has rather nasty plans for the Colony.

Or maybe this whole nestled narrative is just a figment of Quaid’s imagination. Maybe he’s happily dreaming it all, still in the Rekall chair. That’s the tantalizing bit: We don’t really know ... and neither does Quaid.

The next two chases, also both corkers, take place “topside,” in Britain: the first on a multi-level “freeway,” in a stolen police hovercraft; the second in the elaborate, multi-axis elevator system that shuttles citizens from one building to another. The latter sequence, in particular, is another masterpiece of mayhem by Wagner, Tatopoulos and stunt coordinator Andy Gill. You can’t help but applaud.

Alas, that satisfying feeling dwindles away. Subsequent details fly past far too quickly; in two thoroughly unsatisfying cases, we scarcely meet new characters before they’re killed and removed from play. The laws of physics and the frailties of the human body also get tossed aside during the third act; Quaid’s resilience, already an eyebrow-raiser, escalates to ludicrous, superhuman extremes.

A final confrontation set within and without the Fall’s huge transport vehicle — while in motion — is simply daft.

I’d also like to know precisely what the Colony and the United Federation of Britain have done to prevent the rest of the planet’s poisonous air from infiltrating their safe havens; we see no evidence of protective atmospheric domes.

To his credit, Farrell has the bulked-up build and grim determination necessary for his role’s over-the-top physical demands. But he doesn’t emote much; his sour, angry expression is a tedious constant. Jack Nicholson’s character in 1980’s The Shining quickly became boring, because he was deranged from the moment we met him; there was no impression of a good man sliding into dangerous dementia.

The same is true here: Wiseman doesn’t get Farrell to modulate his performance. As a result, we get no sense that an initially placid Quaid is getting progressively more irritated, or resolute, or merciless. At times, he seems just as much an automaton as the robot cops he constructs on the assembly line.

Biel talks tough, but casting her as an action babe is just this side of laughable; she has neither the moves nor the presence to be credible. More to the point, Biel pales alongside Beckinsale, who is thoroughly believable as a bad-ass cop. Credit all the practice she has enjoyed as the vampire warrior Selene, in the Underworld series (two of which were directed by Wiseman).

No matter how punishing the abuse, Beckinsale’s Lori always pops back up for more; she’s the original Energizer Bunny. That’s ludicrous, of course, but then so is everything else about this film; we can’t sweat the small stuff.

John Cho and Will Yun Lee pop up in eyeblink cameos, and Bokeem Woodbine is memorable as Harry, Quaid’s assembly line buddy, and this film’s sole “calm” character.

You’ll quickly notice that these folks never venture to Mars, as Schwarzenegger did; that’s appropriate, since the character in Dick’s story also never left Earth. Fanboys will get a giggle out of the three-breasted hooker, an obvious nod to the 1990 film, but otherwise a pointless distraction here.

This new Total Recall starts well and develops promisingly for the first hour or so. But then Wiseman abandons the story’s intriguing elements for the relentless assault of redundant gunplay and fist-fights.

Dick’s story is, first and foremost, a provocative, fascinating head trip. It’s a shame more of that didn’t land on the screen.

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