Dir: Pete Travis. US. 2008. 90 mins.
Although it's a thriller based around a familiar, Rashomon-style concept, Vantage Point ratchets up its intensity so effectively that the film's lack of originality hardly matters. The assassination of the US president is told through the perspective of different eyewitnesses, with each variation offering new clues as to the crime's perpetrators. The result is a crafty puzzle film elevated by its muscular performances and taut pacing.
Opening wide today in the US, this Columbia Pictures film boasts an easily-marketable hook and a veteran cast (including Dennis Quaid, Sigourney Weaver, and William Hurt) that will probably lure a slightly older audience than the typical action-thriller. With last week's younger-skewing Jumper its only direct competition for several weeks, Vantage Point could show some legs, especially if adults follow their typical pattern of not necessarily rushing out to see it on the opening weekend.
While the film is really an ensemble piece, Dennis Quaid is its biggest box office draw, returning to the action genre for the first time since 2004's Flight Of The Phoenix ($21m domestic, $14m international) and The Day After Tomorrow ($187m domestic, $356m international). But in truth, the cast's cumulative marquee value matters more than any individual's star wattage.
On the international side, Vantage Point opens in many territories in February before quickly expanding through April. Here again, the film's gallery of respected actors will lend the thriller cachet but won't by itself guarantee large grosses. It will be interesting, however, to see whether Vantage Point's anti-hawkish message regarding American foreign policy (as spoken by the film's peace-loving fictional president) will play to audiences perhaps more receptive to this message. Ancillary looks to be particularly robust as this actioner might prove to be a stronger rental than a theatrical performer.
At a conference in Spain to discuss the global war on terror, US President Ashton (Hurt) is shot in broad daylight during a packed gala. Secret Service agent Barnes (Quaid), recently returned to the job after barely surviving a previous assassination attempt on the president, tries to hunt down the shooter but needs help from others who witnessed the event, including his partner (Matthew Fox), an American tourist (Forest Whitaker), and a TV news producer (Weaver). After each separate version of the events, the film flashes back to the moments before the assassination, replaying the same sequence through a new P.O.V. that uncovers more hints about the crime while also complicating the information already revealed.
On paper, Vantage Point is merely a collection of shop-worn genre staples: a shaken lawman looking for redemption; bad guys with an elaborately choreographed plan for mayhem that could rival anything in 24; characters with melodramatic back stories involving strained marriages; and kids put in mortal danger for emotional jolts. As for the film's constantly rewinding narrative structure, it's reminiscent not just of Rashomon, but more recently the work of Quentin Tarantino and, to greater emotional effect, Sidney Lumet's stellar Before The Devil Knows You're Dead.
But if the film is built on a conventional foundation, it's even more impressive what an unalloyed thrill-ride Vantage Point ends up being. For one thing, as handled by screenwriter Barry L. Levy, the rewinding time structure does a nifty job of teasing the audience with narrative cliffhangers at the end of each new retelling, providing some answers while simultaneously muddying the waters further. Admittedly, Levy isn't nearly as adept with character or dialogue - watch out for several extraordinarily clunky bits of exposition throughout - but the pleasures of the unfolding mystery are enough to compensate for woodenness elsewhere. In addition, as the film builds to its conclusion, the myriad plot strands come together in a satisfying, rousing way without feeling overly convoluted.
Director Pete Travis, making his American debut, works with experienced action editor Stuart Baird to maintain a brisk pace so that the rewinding gimmick doesn't stall the momentum, interlacing foot chases and car crashes while keeping the action human-scaled. The director's first feature, Omagh, was about the 1998 IRA bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland, and it's worth noting that Omagh's co-writer, Paul Greengrass, has also managed to make a similar transition from Bloody Sunday to the Jason Bourne films without sacrificing his credibility. Vantage Point is not in the same league as his colleague's films, but at least Travis doesn't cheapen his story's terror elements.
When an action film requires its characters to scream into their cell phones while driving cars at high speeds down packed streets in hot pursuit of villains, a certain amount of credibility is required from the actors. In this regard, Vantage Point is fortunate to have Weaver and Hurt playing to their strengths in smaller parts, while Dennis Quaid brings authenticity to a cliche of a character (essentially a younger variation of the Secret Service agent played by Clint Eastwood in In The Line Of Fire). Whitaker is saddled portraying a sad-sack husband unhappily separated from his wife; through sheer force of his presence, he makes the character empathetic.
If the recognizable American names are predictably solid, three international actors get to shine in a Hollywood film without playing stereotypical foreign baddies. French-Moroccan Saïd Taghmaoui, Venezuela's Edgar Ramirez, and Spain's Eduardo Noriega are all superb, particularly Taghmaoui as the chilly leader of the assassins. As with their American counterparts, these roles could have easily lapsed into formula - inspiring well-deserved criticism of Hollywood xenophobia - but the performances are suitably nuanced and compelling.
Relativity Media (US)
Original Film (US)
Neal H. Moritz
Barry L. Levy
Director of photography