Certainly Tony Scott’s best movie since Enemy of the State, and probably since the Tarantino-scripted True Romance (or maybe Crimson Tide?), Deja Vu is a surprisingly engaging story of voyeurism, obsession, and a very odd complication in an unusual romantic relationship. Denzel Washington stars as an ATF agent investigating the aftermath of a bombed ferry in post-Katrina New Orleans. The job becomes personal after the body of a beautiful woman, badly burned and coated with explosive residue, washes ashore, and as Washington becomes consumed with her case.
Deja Vu veers into blue-sky sci-fi territory when Washington is introduced to a secret government project that gives investigators a window on the past – using a complicated viewing apparatus and a very large screen, they can position a virtual camera and look backward in time, exactly four and a half days, from a given position. The mechanics of this highly improbable device are explained in several dense pages of rapid-fire dialogue that eventually establish the ground rules for the movie’s brand of time travel: nobody knows what the ground rules of time travel are.
The material is executed with breezy good humor and a solid grasp of the paradoxes that are generally involved in time-travel narratives. It helps that Washington’s performance lends the film an easy gravitas, and that the concept as executed is highly cinematic: Washington looks in on the victim-to-be as she eats, sleeps and showers, staring up at her face like a spectator watching a movie screen, even as we in the audience look over his shoulder. Comparing this kind of thing to Vertigo is probably an overstatement (Twelve Monkeys is the most direct precedent in any case), but it’s a bracing image and a powerful metaphor for romantic obsession. In its own moment, it really works. And the time-traveling car chase at the film’s midpoint is pretty nifty.
The relatively carefully constructed narrative falls apart, in some ways, toward the very end, when an executive decision suddenly seems to be made that the film should celebrate the power of love rather than presenting the bleak treatise on fate, frustration, and the illusion of free will that it seems to point toward. That’s no surprise in a mainstream Hollywood film, but Deja Vu does manage to put a twist on the ostensibly happy ending: what’s it like to realize you’re in love with somebody – with a version of somebody — who may never exist?
I don’t think this is likely to be recognized as some kind of lost classic in years to come – Scott breaks the spell too often by going on action-movie autopilot – but in the passages when it manages to fire on all of its ridiculous cylinders, it’s damned entertaining and even evokes some genuine emotion. B