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Next   C

Paramount Pictures / Revolution Studios

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Lee Tamahori
Writers: Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh, Paul Bernbaum (based on a short story by Philip K. Dick)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Thomas Kretschmann, Tory Kittles, José Zúñiga, Jim Beaver, Peter Falk.

Review by Rob Vaux

Look, we don't like picking on Nicolas Cage any more than he likes being picked on. He's a fine actor and he's done some brilliant work; it's just that he's made questionable choices of late. Indeed, it's because he's such a fine actor that those questionable choices become all the more exasperating. Ditto Julianne Moore, whose lack of an Oscar is one of the great lingering injustices to acting as an art form, and yet who insists on periodically appearing atop pungent heaps of steaming compost. The pay is good, I suspect, and they probably like the big houses and the shiny cars as much as everyone else. But when actors that talented choose to make a forgettable piece of high-concept frippery like Next, the material's shortcomings become all the more apparent.

"Bad" isn't quite the right word for this film. It simply does the minimum required of it: finding a neat idea and then sitting back as if the mere act of discovery is sufficient. The idea comes from a short story by Philip K. Dick, and like a lot of Dick's ideas, it bursts with fascinating possibilities. Unfortunately, Next then marries it to a labored technothriller plot, allowing it to do little more than put an interesting spin on a few fights and car chases. Cage plays Cris Johnson, small-time gambler and lousy Vegas magician with an interesting talent. He can see two minutes into his own future, predicting what is about to happen in his life and taking steps to change it if necessary. Next has some fun demonstrating how a genuine supernatural power can make for a mediocre stage act, while Cage finds a decent groove as a guy who dearly wants to find an off switch for his second sight.

Soon enough, however, he's plunged into a world of espionage and mystery, as federal agent Callie Ferris (Moore) shows up with a proposition. Terrorists are planning to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, and she believes that Johnson can help her find them. Johnson, of course, has no interest in being poked and prodded, no matter how important the reason. So he's off on the lam, along with a freshly minted girlfriend (Jessica Biel), whose presence in his life allows him to see much further ahead than he ever could before. Neither female character is hugely original, but Moore sells us on Ferris' hard-nosed bitchiness and Biel is adequate in a fairly thankless damsel-in-distress role (though with her star on the rise, it's probably time to give her something a little meatier).

No one is hugely disagreeable, however, and director Lee Tamahori keeps the proceedings direct and to the point. The high-contrast cinematography from DP David Tattersall lends some intensity to the visuals (while making Moore's lovely alabaster skin practically glow in the dark), and the action scenes that dominate the film's second and third acts never wear on the nerves. Most of that is owed to the nifty way the filmmakers marry Cris' unique power with the immediate tactics of a gunfight or car chase. Knowing exactly where the bullet is going to hit before it's fired, or finding the one spot on the road that won't get buried by falling logs gives him a huge edge, and Tamahori understands how to translate it into properly cinematic terms. Without that distinction, the film really would be lost: trapped in the badly recycled filler of a thousand lazy cop shows.

And that's really the problem, because far too much of Next insists on cutting corners. The villains are all skeevy Eurotrash with zero personality, present simply to provide some impending crisis to send the heroes through their paces. Their fiendish plot is sketchy at best -- devoid of plausible motivation -- while the good guys come up with important clues far too conveniently to be believed. The dialogue struggles through boilerplate G-men banter of the "you've got five days to prove your theory" variety, which clashes too often with the realities of Johnson's powers. And too many questions keep rising to the surface without any decent answer. The script hints at causes and backgrounds -- presumably in an effort to be enigmatic -- but never really sells us on the mystery of Johnson's powers. Instead, it reduces the equation to a lot of bare-bones plotting, moving us along from one set piece to the next with a few passable bits of exposition in between.

That habit becomes even more exasperating when considering what they might have done with their concept. Another Minority Report was not out of reach here -- the embrace of serious ideas without skimping on the whiz-bang excitement -- and the talent on the marquee certainly has the capacity to pull it off. So when Next settles for being another run-of-the-mill genre flick, the disappointment strikes hard and deep. It just has too much in its corner to ignore such depressing mediocrity. Yeah, it hits its mark, sure. But look at how much higher it could have aimed.

Review published 04.30.2007.

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