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Vantage Point   D+

Columbia Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Pete Travis
Writer: Barry L. Levy
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Bruce McGill, Edgar Ramirez, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt.

Review by Rob Vaux

The climax of Vantage Point involves one of the characters running towards the camera in slow motion and screaming "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" at the top of his lungs. If that badge of shame doesn't convince you avoid this movie like the plague... well, then you may as well stop reading now, because nothing else I say will convince you. Didn't we ban this gimmick by universal consent? The Simpsons shot it dead one fine winter's day in the early '90s, and numerous other satirists have since taken turns kicking the carcass in the teeth. Even mocking, ironic use of it wore out its welcome some time ago. And yet Vantage Point actually hopes to generate legitimate dramatic tension by dragging it out and thrusting its hoary, manky visage in our faces. Of course, considering the clichéd goofiness of the film's previous 80-odd minutes, I suppose we can't blame it for grasping at straws.

Its central selling point is an interesting format, which works wonders as craftsmanship but needs a proper puzzle-box storyline to justify its twists and turns. In essence, it represents another version of the blind men and the elephant: a number of characters viewing the same event, with different details that don't add up until you assemble them as a whole. The early sequence shows considerable promise as hard-edged news producer Sigourney Weaver choreographs coverage of a major breakthrough in the war on terror. The President of the United States (William Hurt) is on-hand at a giant summit in Salamanca, Spain, where he will announce a historic agreement between the nations of the world. Then, right before our eyes, shots ring out, the crowd panics, and explosions rock the picturesque square.

Director Pete Travis at first seems intent on toying with elegant notions of subjectivity, and how our camera-saturated world still can't connect the dots sufficiently enough to find the whole truth. We move over the same ground again and again, shifting perspectives to different characters -- the President, his Secret Servicemen, various onlookers, and so forth -- while slowly expanding the timeline to include more revelatory details. Each sequence ends on a cliffhanger, dangling some stunning piece of information in front of us or cutting away just before some shocking new development to return us to the starting point and go through it all again. As a structural exercise, it remains fairly impressive: keeping all of the details clear and assembling the drama such that the constant back-and-forth functions as it should.

Unfortunately, beneath all of that, the story itself beggars belief. Vantage Point's insistence on hitting the reset button just before we learn what we need to know draws undue attention to the artifice of the endeavor, while piling on truly ludicrous (and not particularly original) plot complications that render the act of piecing them all together an exercise in absurdity. There's a conspiracy, of course -- intended to dazzle us with the villains' ingenuity, but depending too much on good-guy incompetence to feel even remotely clever. Said incompetence works just long enough to set things in motion, then suddenly vanishes just in time for one driven, desperate hero to try and save the day. That would be Dennis Quaid's veteran Secret Service agent, who smells a rat from the get-go and scowls his way through a number of foot chases, car chases, and shouted conversations in pursuit of the unspeakable secret at the heart of it all.

But the fun of that search -- aided by editor Stuart Baird and a very pretty Mexico City standing in for Spain -- never recovers from the toxic amounts of balderdash we have to swallow to make it work. Supposedly intelligent details just don't fly if they inspire snorts of derision rather than an intake of breath, and Vantage Point foists them on us not once or twice, but repeatedly. For example, a key component of the plot entails someone unknowingly slipping explosives through a big security checkpoint in a handbag. How? By flashing a badge, which prompts the nice lady to turn off the X-ray machine for him. Anyone who has taken a plane ride in the last five years can tell you what patent bullshit that is. Even the most slack-jawed Homeland Security drones have enough sense to ask you if you've packed your own luggage, and if you haven't, I'm guessing the barking dogs and cattle prods come out lickety-split. But in the Vantage Point universe, otherwise hyper-competent police officers can't grasp that basic notion. And security at a major summit involving the leaders of 150 nations is apparently more lax than that on the red-eye from Oakland to Burbank.

Vast, unchecked swaths of the movie depend on your ability to shrug and accept such idiocy. That's fine for a Michael Bay picture, but when you ask your audience to respect how smart your story is, it becomes downright embarrassing. So too does the film's insistence on underscoring every contrivance in tones of thunderous gravitas, transforming an ostensibly serviceable thriller into the most unintentionally hilarious film so far this year. It's painful to watch the likes of Quaid, Weaver, and Forest Whitaker (playing a tourist who videotapes the seeming assassination) battle to reclaim some dignity in the midst of it... and a testament to their talent that they more or less succeed. As for the rest of Vantage Point, it remains an intriguing idea. We'll need something a lot less ridiculous to see what it can really do.

Review published 02.25.2008.

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