3 stars (out of four)
If you can swallow one of the most elaborate and absurd time-machine gimmicks imaginable, you can have a good time at "Deja Vu," the new Denzel Washington thriller about time travel, mad bombers and undying love at first sight. It's an almost overwhelmingly professional picture, murderously fast, slick and full of outlandish notions, painstakingly realized. And it's also surprisingly satisfying -- thanks to Washington, a good cast, Tony Scott's swift direction and that unyielding professionalism.
"Deja Vu" is the action spectacular you expect from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Scott, in the same vein as "Top Gun" and "Enemy of the State." I'm not always taken with their style, or with their fast-as-a-lighting-bolt stories and often shallow high-concept scripts. But I liked this one.
It has the usual crackling pace and also some fairly sharp dialogue. (One of the co-writers, Terry Rossio, co-wrote "Shrek," "Shrek 2" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.) It was the first big feature shot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- for which the company deserves credit. It has a plot that mixes film noir and romance with science-fiction time-travel adventure -- and, for its heroes, it has an elite investigative unit including Washington as ATF agent Doug Carlin, high-pressure FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), bearded Seinfeldish computer-brain Denny (Adam Goldberg) and a lot of other guys who are oddly blase about things that are utterly impossible.
Through the magic of quantum physics, satellite surveillance and high-tech moviemaking, this group can view the past from several days away, and from multiple angles, on monitors. Utilizing this technological marvel, all of them, especially Doug, are determined to find out who left a bomb on a Mississippi River ferry, killing or injuring a boatload of sailors and their families and friends.
Eventually, Doug even travels back in time. Like Dana Andrews' detective in the noir classic "Laura," Doug has fallen in love with a dead woman, one of the terrorists' murder victims, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton of "Idlewild"). But Doug doesn't need a "Laura-ish" plot twist to bring her back to life. He can follow her into the past, where she may hold the key to the puzzle -- especially to the strange activities of malcontent Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel at his least Christlike), a dour guy who likes to brandish MP-5 machine guns and babble about destiny.
Not only does Doug want to try to avert the catastrophe, he also desperately wants to find Claire while she's still alive. The movie puts him through a time warp that makes it all briefly possible.
As you'd expect, "Deja Vu" begins and ends with the ferry ride, and Scott and his writers and crew do a nice job of jacking up the tension both times. But the movie's acid test comes in that shaggy, bustling little time-window monitor set, with the detective voyeurs peeping on the past. There's a powerful wish-fulfillment fantasy at work here, and however hard to buy, it can get to you.
It's enjoyable -- and not just because Washington is the kind of star actor who supplies instant likeability and snappy irreverence. He was a terrific smart-alecky cop in Spike Lee's "The Inside Man" and he's almost as good here -- though it's not nearly as good a picture. But Washington's air of unflappable, unkiddable cool is as invaluable for a picture like this as Scott's swift, pedal-to-the-metal style. How else could you to buy into scenes like the movie's flabbergasting dual-time-track, multiple-collision car chase, in which Doug, driving in daylight and watching a portable time monitor, wildly pursues Oerstadt's van -- which is ripping along ahead of him on the monitor, at an earlier time, at night?
Actually, the over-the-top premise here may be better for the ultraslick Bruckheimer-Scott treatment than something more superficially plausible. "Deja Vu" can't be believed for a second, and that makes it more entertaining. Like many of Bruckheimer's movies, it's grandiose, exciting, absurd, geared for maximum popularity and pretty much drowned in formulas. But, in this case, with Washington at the wheel, drowning isn't necessarily fatal.
Directed by Tony Scott; written by Bill Marsilii, Terry Rossio; photographed by Paul Cameron; edited by Chris Lebenzon; production designed by Chris Seagers; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:08. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images and some sexuality).
Doug Carlin - Denzel Washington
Claire Kuchever - Paula Patton
Agent Pryzwarra - Val Kilmer
Carroll Oerstadt - Jim Caviezel
Denny - Adam Goldberg
Jack McCready - Bruce Greenwood
Shanti - Erika Alexander
Minuti - Matt Craven