Déjà Vu

Déjà Vu (2006)

Déjà Vu first published by Film4

Summary: Denzel Washington stars twice over in Tony Scott’s time-travelling thriller that starts with a bang and ends with a brain-teaser. 

ReviewDéjà Vu is the sixth collaboration between director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (after Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cops II, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State), and Scott’s third collaboration with actor Denzel Washington (after Crimson Tide and Man on Fire) – so you might be forgiven for supposing that the film’s title is an ironic promise of old routines and formulae knowingly retrodden. It is a suspicion that the film’s first act seems to confirm, with its explosive opening followed by the kind of painstaking post-mortem detective work ‘already seen’ many times before in Bruckheimer’s TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Yet as Doug Carlin (Washington), a New Orleans-based federal agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, begins investigating the bombing of a ferryboat that has left 543 people dead, and ascertains that one of the victims, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), was in fact killed several hours before the ferry explosion, he realises that this is going to be no ordinary case. Thanks to his keen mind and local knowledge, Carlin finds himself co-opted into a new FBI investigations unit headed by Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer). It turns out that Pryzwarra’s team of physicists has chanced upon a wormhole into the past, and is cautiously test-driving equipment that enables them to monitor from any angle events of four and a half days ago as they unfold in real time on a high-tech screen.

With no idea who the bomber is, Carlin uses the time-leaping equipment to focus on Claire’s last days, gathering evidence that will solve the crime and pinpoint the killer – but as his sense of outrage and horror grows, he decides instead to try and prevent the crime from happening at all, first by sending clues back in time to himself, and then by sending himself back with just hours remaining before the bombing takes place. In the head-spinning maelstrom of paradoxes that follows, the future may never be the same again – which is just as well, since Carlin is about to make, or at least to have made, the ultimate sacrifice. 

Time can play funny tricks. When Bill Marsilii began writing Déjà Vu in 1997, it was essentially a fantasy response to the Oklahoma bombing of two years earlier – but then the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon came around in September 11, 2001, requiring that the script be updated to a post-9/11 context, and just before principal shooting was to begin in New Orleans in 2005, the city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, necessitating further changes to the screenplay. Like his protagonist Carlin, Marsilli kept having to go back and look again in the light of events unfolding on the ground, and so he and his subsequent co-writer Tony Rossio have crafted a piece of multi-layered plotting that has traces of not one, but three recent American disasters encoded into its fabric. 

Whether the result is regarded as complex and subtle, or just an unholy mess, this conflation of several rather different tragedies ensures that the film is free from the sort of disappointingly reactionary oversimplifications to be found in earlier Scott films. Here the villain is a terrorist, to be sure, but he is also a home-grown patriot who fervently supports the troops in Iraq (as a sticker in his house reveals), and who parrots neo-con nonsense about the validity of ‘human collateral’. When Carlin and his colleagues finally get their man, Pryzwarra’s triumphal declaration of “mission accomplished” rings hollow, not least because it is the very expression which, in a carefully choreographed ‘Top Gun moment’, appeared prominently on a banner behind one George W. Bush as he announced what in fact turned out to be only the beginning of a protracted (and increasingly chaotic) conflict in Iraq. Things, the film suggests, are never quite so simple – even with 20/20 hindsight.

For, unlike much of Scott’s earlier, more monolithically tendentious work (Top Gun, say, or more recently Man on Fire), Déjà Vu is a film of clashing viewpoints and mixed messages. Even the film’s status as Christian allegory (complete with a hero who sacrifices himself to save others and miraculously returns from the grave) is complicated by the casting of Jim Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), as the devil of the piece. Certainly the debate between science and religion that runs through the film remains unresolved to the enigmatic ending, which enters the sort of speculative realms where faith and physics can happily co-exist.

Surprisingly, however, such ideological irresolution does not hamper Scott’s power to forge a compelling story from difficult, potentially confusing materials. With its time-travelling conundrums and parallel narratives, Déjà Vu recalls the high-concept convolutions of Frequency (2000), Primer (2004) or The Lake House (2006) – but here exposition is well-integrated and kept to a minimum, while the director’s trademark fluid camerawork and scatter-gun editing drive the plot forwards (and backwards) at a relentless pace. It is testimony to Scott’s mastery of visual storytelling that many of the film’s sequences, including one of the most ingenious car chases ever committed to film, are easily followed on screen even as they utterly defy verbal description.

Add to this a typically charismatic performance from Washington and a witty script, and you have that rarest of beasts, a thrilling action blockbuster that does not underestimate the intelligence of its viewers. Like Carlin, you may find yourself wanting to see it more than once to appreciate how everything fits together – which earns Déjà Vu the status of a future (perfect) classic.

Verdict: Ingeniously plotted and never less than engaging, Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu is a classic in the future perfect tense.

© Anton Bitel