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Frequency   C+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Writer: Toby Emmerich
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Andre Baugher, Elizabeth Mitchell, Noah Emmerich, Shawn Doyle, Jordan Bridges, Melissa Errico.

Review by Rob Vaux

Man, they were so close.

It hurts watching a otherwise good movie fall apart in the climax. Frequency has so much going for it -- a good cast, a strong director, and an intriguing take on the time-travel theme. But like a championship athlete running a record-setting race, only to trip over his own shoelaces in the last 30 feet, none of its early heroics really matter: only the botched finale lingers in the mind.

It's a real pity, because Frequency is in many ways a terrific film. It opens in October 1969, where New York firefighter Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) risks his life in a daily series of casual heroics. When not pulling construction workers away from impending explosions, he teaches his son Johnny how to ride a bide and monkeys around with his ham radio. One magical night, with the Mets in the World Series and powerful northern lights shimmering in the sky, Frank picks up a one-of-a-kind transmission across the bandwaves: his son, 30 years in the future.

Johnny (Jim Caviesel) has grown up to be police detective -- still living in the same house -- and pulls out the old ham radio on another October night in 1999. The aurora borealis are back in the sky and thanks to "the mother sunspot of all time," father and son can suddenly speak to each other across the decades. Initially confused, Johnny soon realizes who's on the other end and the pivotal date he's speaking from. He also knows that on Oct 11, 1969, his father will dive into a burning building and never come out. Hurriedly, thoughtlessly, he gives the unbelieving Frank a few words of advice...and makes some dangerous changes to the past he knew.

Anyone familiar with the time-travel genre knows that that altering history can have grave repercussions. The rest of the film centers on Frank and Johnny's efforts to (hopefully) repair the inadvertent damage they've caused. For most of Frequency's running time, it's great to watch them try. Director Gregory Hoblit brings genuine plausibility to this far-fetched scenario, and keeps a firm handle on the proceedings. The film has a lot of disparate elements -- science-fiction, detective thriller, family drama -- but Hoblit focuses it all into a very involving story. Frequency alternates between gripping and sentimental, suspenseful and clever, with disarming ease; the time-travel gimmick works because of its novelty, and because none of the characters can control it the way they would, say, the DeLorean in Back to the Future. For an hour and 45 minutes, this juggling act rolls merrily along without a care in the world.

Then, within sight of the finish line, it all falls apart. Like Hoblit's earlier films (Primal Fear and the masterful Fallen), Frequency relies on a kick-in-the-teeth plot twist to give the climax some punch. Unlike its predecessors, however, it badly miscues, giving us a phony, tacked-on conclusion that it never recovers from. The plot's inadequacies, so deftly hidden until then, come tumbling out in a heap, reducing the suspense to awkward mechanics and the sentiment to mawkish melodrama. The fact that it occurs during such a pivotal moment makes it all the more stunning.

It may be harsh to condemn the whole film just because it can't stick the dismount; Hoblit handles so many things so well -- the firefighting scenes, for example, or the marvelous way the two Sullivans first deny, then grow to believe their miraculous connection -- that I'm tempted to give it a higher grade. But a bad ending can sink a thousand brilliant set-ups, and the climax here all but erases the great material that precedes it. One turn too many and the whole dance is ruined -- a lesson Frequency conveys all too well.

Review published 05.05.2000.

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