Friday, February 6, 2009

Review: "Push"

There are super-heroes among us -- scuzzy heroes with amazing powers and bad hair.

"Push" is the latest in a line of movies not directly based on a comic book, but with a comic book vibe. In my preview of what I was going to review this week, I referred to "Push" as "this year's 'Jumper'" -- typical of my snarky sense of humor. Turns out I was pretty spot-on with my assessment. This movie starring Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning plays out in much the same style, and with about the same modest level of success.

The set-up is in the "X-Men" vein -- strangers walk among us who have strange and terrible abilities that they were born with. A shadowy government division -- named, simply, The Division -- hunts them down so they can experiment on them and exploit their powers. For some strange reason known only to Hollywood casting agents, all the heroes are under the age of 25 and really good-looking.

The interesting twist here (from screenwriter David Bourla) is that the super-powered fall into many specific categories. For instance, Chris Evans plays Nick, who is a Mover -- meaning he can move stuff around through telekinesis. His sidekick is Cassie (Fanning), a Watcher who can foretell the future, with varying reliability. Both have hair that looks like it hasn't seen any Pert in a few months, with Fanning's decked out in an array of pink and blue stripes.

A Pusher, by the way, is someone who can control other people's minds by pushing, or implanting thoughts in their head. For example, they can approach a total stranger and get their help by making them think they're old friends. They can even convince the weak-minded that they can put a loaded gun in their mouth and pull the trigger without any ill consequences.

There are two Pushers in the story: Kira (Camilla Belle), who escaped from The Division after getting injected with a power-boosting drug that killed all the other guinea pigs; and Carver (Djimon Hounsou), the Division chief who hunts her. Carver's right-hand man (Neil Jackson) is a Mover who's so talented he can even stop bullets.

This begs two questions. First: Since neither of the main characters is a Pusher, why isn't this movie titled "Mover" or "Watcher"? (Probably because they're not as catchy.) Second: Since The Division seems to be populated entirely by people who have the same powers as the people they're hunting, what is their ultimate aim? There's no talk about taking over the world, etc. All they seem to do is recruit or hunt other Movers, Pushers, etc. Are they just going for the biggest all-mutant list of Facebook friends?

The action takes place in Hong Kong, with Nick and Cassie trying to find Kira while avoiding Carver and a family of Chinese criminals who all have powers. It's a lot of chase-chase, with the future shifting as their actions do. Cassie keeps foreseeing their deaths, so they're trying to do something, anything, to keep that from happening.

At first I liked the idea of an underground society of mutants with different castes divided by powers. You've got Stitchers who can heal the wounded, Screamers who emit deadly sonic waves, Shifters who can temporarily change objects into other things; Sniffers who can track people by the things they've touched, and even Shadows who can keep people from being detected by Sniffers. It goes on and on.

But then I realized the limitless array of powers is essentially a storytelling crutch. It's like the ever-expanding list of spells and magical objects in the "Harry Potter" series. Whenever Harry & Co. encounter a new obstacle, there's always some new spell we've never heard of before, or some magical trinket, to solve their problems. There are no horizons on their abilities, which allows the storyteller to get into and out of sticky spots with minimal effort.

The same goes here. As soon as Nick and Cassie are in trouble, a new type of mutant is introduced to save the day. I half expected them to introduce a guy called The Plot Thickener whenever the action slows down.

1.5 stars out of four.

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