Push (2009)

Push first published by Film4

Synopsis: Paul McGuigan’s sixth feature uses the tropes of the superhero ensemble as cover for an elaborate paranormal scam.

Review: “This is not a con,” says brash 13-year-old Cassie (Dakota Fanning) to Nick (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Paul McGuigan’s Push as she tries to persuade the down-on-his-luck adult to help her locate a missing briefcase said to contain $6 million. “This is a way for everybody to have something they want.”

While Cassie’s words might seem to announce a departure from the confidence tricks and double-crosses of McGuigan’s previous feature Lucky Number Slevin (2006), there is something in the strength of her denial, and in the seductive improbability of her proposal, that suggests otherwise. At heart, Push is indeed a con artist movie, even if all its characters are blessed – or cursed – with paranormal abilities, so that the long con unfolding here is unusually, even unnaturally, convoluted. By the time the film has twisted, bluffed and feinted its way to a conclusion, many of the ordinary mortals in the audience will long since have been left behind. But those who stay the distance will be rewarded with some highly original and ingenious plotting.

Nick is a ‘Mover’, born with powers of telekinesis. Ten years ago, when he was still a boy, his father was murdered by a clandestine US agency known as The Division that hunts down paranormals in the hope of engineering a super-powered army. Ever since then, Nick has lived in self-exile in Hong Kong, more or less beyond The Division’s reach, wasting away his unpolished talents on street gambling – but one day both trouble and destiny come calling in the shape of Cassie, a clairvoyant ‘Watcher’ determined that Nick should help her find a Macguffin-like briefcase full of something that seemingly everyone wants.

Helped by some local friends and freelancers, each with their own unusual ability, Nick manages to trace the ‘owner’ of the briefcase – a mind-controlling ‘Pusher’ named Kira (Camilla Belle) who is in fact Nick’s one-time girlfriend. But as ruthless Division Pusher Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), his team of freakish agents and a power-hungry family of Chinese paranormals all close in, and as Cassie starts to foresee death at every turn, Nick is about to discover that it is not so easy to remain a step ahead of adversaries who can read your every intention, predict your every move, or even get into your head and make you act against your own will.

“The future is always changing, in the largest of ways by the smallest of things,” declares Cassie near the beginning of Push. Evidently the same principle holds true, mutatis mutandis, for genre itself, where the tiniest of variations can make all the difference to the whole. For if Push seems at first to be just another action SF concerned with an ensemble of unnaturally empowered individuals at war with a sinister organisation, covering ground already well trodden by, for example, ScannersJumper, and TV’s Heroes, then it has plenty of surprises in store for the unsuspecting viewer once it shifts into more uncharted territories.

For a start, there is the unusual setting, and the way that it has been shot. Here Hong Kong is presented not as some slick futurist metropolis, but as a gritty melting pot, all dusty tenements, antique fishmarkets and half-built skyscrapers, grounding the film’s more fantastic elements in an unexpected realism.

Contrary to the normal narrative trajectory of this subgenre, Push‘s protagonist is no messiah figure, and although he certainly does have powers, he is never particularly proficient in their use. Action sequences are avoided at least as often as they are realised, and Nick will ultimately rely less on his ability to move objects with his mind than on his capacity to puzzle out a devilishly complicated plan.

Thanks to a lightning-fast pace and an increasingly economic use of exposition, you will be left convinced that there must be gaping holes in the plot, but far less sure where exactly they lie. Certainly by the end it is difficult – although by no means impossible – to keep up with all the intricacies of the narrative (in a subgenre more normally associated with brainless biffo).

The result is a film apparently intended as “a way for everybody to have something they want”. All the usual genre thrills are there, at least in embryo, but they receive enough of a fresh twist to keep the most jaded viewers on their toes. The reality, of course, may well prove different: the male adolescents who typically flock to such films are likely just to be left disappointed and frustrated by the more head-scratching material on offer here, while any other kind of viewer will probably have opted to see something else in the first place.

Still, McGuigan deserves credit for daring to be different, in taking such an unconventionally cerebral approach to this most dumb-assed of genres. And Dakota Fanning continues her reign as the finest child actress of her generation, even as she shows the first signs here of drifting – and grifting – her way into sassier, swearier teen years.

In a Nutshell: Though ostensibly action sci-fi, McGuigan’s film pushes the boundaries of genre, playing out its paranormal parameters like a game of multi-dimensional chess.

Anton Bitel