A 2015 New York Times investigation found that 74 percent of US law enforcement agencies considered far right extremists a bigger threat than Islamic terrorists. Which makes the new thriller Imperium an important film, if just because of its subject matter.
When a shipment of smuggled Cesium is discovered by the FBI, the agency is quick to presume it was intended for a radical Muslim terrorist cell. But case agent Angelina Zampino (Toni Collette) suspects it was the work of white supremacists, and against her superiors wishes sends idealistic young analyst Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) undercover to investigate. He shaves his head, reads up on Timothy McVey and Mein Kampf, and soon enough he’s in deep, way over his head.
On paper, it’s Donnie Brasco with Neo-Nazis instead of the mob. And that’s a mostly accurate take on the film. If you’ve seen The Departed or Serpico or even Point Break, you know exactly the beats it’s going to hit. There are bits where he worries that he’s in too deep, sitting in a deserted car park with his handler. There’s a scene where he accidentally leaves some FBI stuff out and the gang he’s infiltrating turn up unannounced. A moment where he runs into someone who recognises him from his real life. A member of the gang who believes he has a real bond with him, and he feels bad betraying them. Coming just a week after the Bryan Cranston-starring The Infiltrator, it’s hard not to find all these clichés a little weary. But it’s still a slick, well made and engrossing thriller.
Radcliffe does well with the material. His accent is a bit clunky to begin with, but once he goes undercover, he is convincing as the sort of angry and confused yet smart kid that might be seduced by the upper levels of the white power movement. He struggles on some of the more awkward dialogue – the script has a habit of making him say big info-dumps of Neo-Nazi lore that not even the most obsessive true believer would say out loud – but apart from that it’s another impressive grown-up role for him. Toni Collette’s character is basically just every grizzled old FBI veteran rolled into one, but she gets that down to a tee.
The one major difference to the set up, compared to things like Donnie Brasco, is that it’s easy to see how people can get seduced by the glamour and money of the mob, but here Radcliffe’s character is surrounded by constant hatred instead of girls and power. A theme of the movie is Collette telling him that he has to understand them, and find common ground with them to truly get on the inside. But that’s actually one of the biggest things that’s missing from the film. There’s very little exploration of what drives people to the white power movement. Obviously their abhorrent views can’t (and shouldn’t) be defended, but these people are often ignored by society or live in poverty, which means that such gangs and organisations can prey easily on them. But there’s little exploration of this in the film, and it feels like a missed opportunity.
Still, one powerful thing the film does is draw parallels with Islamic terrorism, and how that gets far more attention. It opens with Radcliffe foiling an Islamic terror plot, and the FBI chiefs are shown to be completely dismissive of the idea that white supremacists are anywhere near as important to keep tabs on as Muslim extremists (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary). That, coupled with the fact that film is a decently entertaining thriller regardless of the political stuff, means that it’s worth at look.
Imperium is in UK cinemas from September 23rd.
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