Two tales of the tape

Times Staff Writer

"VANTAGE POINT" is proof that a good pulp idea can overcome a multitude of sins, but not all of them. Initially intriguing and energetic, this film ends up demonstrating that a good script needs to be more than a clever concept and fine direction must be more than moving things fast.

The good idea, courtesy of screenwriter Barry L. Levy, is to examine an attempted assassination of the president of the United States from the different viewpoints of eight individuals, each of whom gets 10 minutes or so of screen time devoted to their very own p.o.v.

Though the intriguing device of seeing the same events more than once made at least one preview audience noticeably restive, it is definitely an unusual twist on standard thriller material.

The film's producer has made lofty comparisons to "Rashomon," but "Vantage Point" is more like a riff on the old story of the blind men and the elephant. The different characters don't have different points of view on what's happened as in the Japanese classic, they simply have different pieces of the puzzle that the film presents as a mystery to be solved.

Because the script is positively miserly in the way it doles out information, we can't help being initially drawn into the narrative, even if it's a bit against our will. Levy's script is a nakedly slick and manipulative piece of business, but as directed by Pete Travis, it does create an initial want-to-see.

The setting is the teeming Plaza Mayor, or central square, in Salamanca, Spain (re-created for logistical reasons in Mexico City), where U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt) has journeyed to sign a multinational agreement that will "put a stranglehold on international terrorism." If you think that makes the terrorists happy, you've got a lot to learn.

We initially view this setup through the eyes of Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), a harried TV news producer. We are with her in the network truck when the unthinkable happens: Shots are fired at the president and, moments later, even more chaos ensues.

When this segment ends, the clock gets wound back to the beginning of the story, and we see the same thing from the vantage point of Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), a heroic Secret Service agent who, thanks to the support of fellow agent Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox), has returned to duty in Salamanca after having taken a bullet for this same president several months earlier.

One of the people whom Barnes nervously eyes in the crowd is humble American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker). He's in Spain on his own as a result of some undefined trouble with his marriage and wants to film the president's appearance to take home to his kids.

There are lots of witnesses lined up for screen time after Lewis, including assorted terrorists and even Hurt's President Ashton, so stiff and unbending you wonder how he got elected in the first place, but it's with this segment that "Vantage Point's" problems begin to emerge.

For even with Oscar-winner Whitaker in the role, Howard Lewis is less a real person than a paper-thin construct put together strictly to fulfill a plot demand. Screenwriter Levy has no doubt done the best he could, but without believable people his elaborate story simply can't be sustained on screen.

Attempting to make the best of this is director Travis, whose first feature was the excellent "Omagh," which brought both feeling and excitement to the story of a bombing in Northern Ireland. But there, with the benefit of a script co-written by Paul Greengrass, writer and director of "Bloody Sunday," he made the situation feel relevant and real.

Travis has a facility with action and movement, and he does what he can here, but this film's pedestrian dialogue and nonexistent character development are barriers that can't be overcome.

For the lack of even borderline real folks means that "Vantage Point's" gimmickry and coincidence start to seem increasingly implausible. We don't necessarily mind all the plot tricks thrown at us, but we need something to make us believe this might be happening, and this film can't supply it.

The truth is that two other films with Greengrass' name on them, "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," have spoiled us for this kind of thriller filmmaking, and stacked against that, "Vantage Point" doesn't have a chance.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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"Vantage Point." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, some disturbing images and brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. In general release.

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