Friday, August 3, 2012

Review: "Total Recall"

I didn't think it was possible, but they've actually done a remake of "Total Recall" that is a less contemplative movie than the 1990 one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not an insult.

This redo starring Colin Farrell is a slick and expensive-looking chase movie that never really lets up. It doesn't amount to anything more than one big long chase, so if you're looking for freaky-deaky ruminations about the metaphysics of implanted memories, you'd best move along.

But the actions scenes are crisply staged, Kate Beckinsale makes for one of the best female cinematic villains we've seen in a while, and the visual backdrop of the cramped, dystopian future is pretty ambitious -- even if director Len Wiseman did crib at least 75 percent of it from "Blade Runner."

The new "Recall"and the old are both based on Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," with both movies taking extreme liberties with that short story. Dick was a fecund talent who wrote about the intersection of technology and alienation, and his characters fretted constantly about whether their own thoughts were falsified or compromised by scientific "progress."

The first movie version, directed by Paul Verhoeven, was horrifically violent R-rated action/adventure built around the star persona of Schwarzenegger. The Austrian ironman had done a couple of comedies by then poking fun at (or making use of) his mechanical acting abilities and warped pronunciations, and that smirky tilt got folded into the mix. The film generated several of the most memorable "Arnie-isms" -- "See you at the party, Richter!" and "Consider that a divorce" being the most often quoted.

The remake diverges in many ways from the 1990 version -- no doubt you've heard about the most noticeable way, in that the action never takes our hero to the planet of Mars, his lifelong wish. But Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback take pains to offer up several visual and dialogue cues as a nod to the first film.

The infamous three-breasted prostitute is here, and a certain big-boned woman with red hair is conspicuous at a security checkpoint. (I remember how strange and unlikely that idea seemed two decades ago -- being scanned and prodded and questioned, just to travel from point A to B. Now we accept it as a matter of course.)

Farrell also utters another Arnie line verbatim -- "If I'm not me, then who the hell am I?"

The basic setup is the same. Doug Quaid is a shmo blue-collar worker who dreams of traveling to Mars, but lacks the dough. He goes to a dream factory to have some memories of adventures as a secret agent implanted -- but something goes awry when their scans reveal he actually is a secret agent. Doug takes out an entire squad of police, then returns home to find his loving wife Lori (Beckinsale) is a plant tasked with watching over him.

Doug killed Lori in the first movie pretty quickly, but here she's turned into his tireless nemesis. Despite her willowy physique, Beckinsale is convincing as an acrobatic ass-kicker, and the relentless nature of her pursuit gives her an almost supernatural aura.

Instead of mutants on Mars, Doug fights for the rebels in The Colony -- once the nation of Australia but now once again a vassal of the English empire, reborn as the United Federation of Brittania. Most of the world is a toxic wasteland, the Brits need some elbow room, and the Colony has it.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this world is The Fall, the only mode of transport between Europe and Australia. It's a massive elevator that passes right through the core of the Earth, with the gravity reversing itself halfway through. The first time we see this, we know it will be a plot point later on.

Also cool are the synthetic policemen, who sort of resemble Robocop if he'd become a dancer in "The Black Swan" and gone on a starvation diet. There's some subplot about a "kill code" that will instantly shut down all the robots at once, but we're not sure if that's a ruse or a part of Doug's false memories.

Jessica Biel plays Melina, a rebel girl who has a thing for Doug. Her character doesn't make as much of an impact as Beckinsale, but it does give an excuse for several girl-on-girl fight scenes, which the filmmakers happily obliging.

Bryan Cranston plays the head poo-bah of the Federation, and he cackles and snarls and taunts with obvious relish. This is the second movie this summer in which Cranston, who's become something of an acting demigod for his work on that TV show "Breaking Bad," plays a tawdry villain, and both are pretty one-note performances with a heavy pinch of schmaltz. Someone, please find this man better film roles, now!

Bill Nighy appears as the head of the resistance, and I'll save you the trouble of wondering by stating that he does not emerge from some other guy's potbelly.

The violence in this "Total Recall" is rather aesthetically pure in a decidedly PG-13-rated way. Both Farrell and Biel get kicked and punched in the face so much their heads should've swelled up to the size of watermelons, but instead they get a bunch of small facial cuts that bleed profusely and then disappear two scenes later. (Except for one on Doug's right ear that appears to be "sticky.")

Is this "Total Recall" decidedly better or worse than the other one? Not really. And I'll cop to missing Schwarzenegger's dominating, grinning, vowel-strangling presence.

But it's a fun, fast-moving story that will entertain and occasionally amaze you. That already puts it into the "save" pile, ahead of many other movies I'd like to be able to hit a button to forget.

3 stars out of four

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