Mystery DVD Club No 8: Retroactive

A couple of spoilers, as our Mystery DVD Club actually turns up a film worth watching, as Timecop meets The Hitcher in Retroactive...


Mystery DVD Club: we buy shovelloads of cheap DVDs, send them to our writers who don’t know what they’re going to get, and hope to find a gem. Staggeringly, we might actually be on to something this time…

You know you’re in for a treat when a film uses doublespeak clichés like ‘pushes the envelope’ in its synopsis. But that’s exactly how 90s sci-fi thriller Retroactive, the latest film Den Of Geek hopes to rescue from the ignominy of Poundland’s bargain basement section, describes itself. The producers might as well have gone the whole way and added ‘thinks outside the box’, too. Perhaps that’s an unfair way to start. It was just something that struck me as amusing as I broke the crisp cellophane wrapping that encased my mystery DVD like a transparent straight-to-video straightjacket.

Staring a post-K9 James Belushi as a gun-toting psychopath and US TV actress Kylie Travis as a Chicago hostage negotiator on sabbatical, Retroactive is a cross between violent horror road movies and time travelling science fiction. Think The Hitcher meets Timecop for an easy analogy.

The film opens on reclusive scientist Brian, (Frank Whaley), who has invented a machine that can send people back short distances through time. Meanwhile, Frank (Belushi) is a small time crook involved with some sort of microchip smuggling, while Karen (Travis) is returning home after her last job left six innocent people dead. After nearly crashing her car, Frank picks Karen up from the side of a remote Texan highway, offering her a lift to a gas station down the road. The atmosphere in the car is tense, with Frank seemingly in the midst of an argument with his wife Rayanne (Shannon Whirry), but civilised.

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However, when Frank gets to the truck stop his accomplice Sam (M. Emmet Walsh) gives him some photos of his wife cheating on him. In a rage, Frank drives out into the desert and shoots his wife in cold blood. Karen, who is trapped inside the car after having to get back in for her wallet, then escapes, finds Brian’s research facility and convinces him to send her back in time to stop the murder.

Events then proceed to unravel in a Butterfly Effect-style, with each of Karen’s actions producing an alternate reaction. The idea is similar to that of the Terminator series: that you can change fate’s path but not its destination. And while there are a few plot holes and narrative treads left untied, on the whole Retroactive is actually pretty entertaining. With a bit of tightening up in the script department, this could have been more than worthy of a cinema release.

The acting’s not half bad, ether. Belushi always put a lot of high energy mania into his performances, and seems to be enjoying playing against his typecast. He doesn’t wholly convince. Frank seems more like a pissed off Elvis impersonator after a big night out in Vegas than desperado mentalist, but at least he gives it a go. On a similar note, Travis – trying her best to be Sarah Conner – looks like a Playboy centrefold on a bad hair day in places, but is also strong enough to be believable for the most part. Experienced character actor M. Emmet Walsh doesn’t get a lot to play with as Frank’s redneck goon, but Shannon Whirry and Frank Whaley both put in good shifts.

Retroactive also looks pretty stunning in places, taking full advantage of the desert’s beauty. The cinematographer utilises the natural colour palette of dust bowl reds and dry clay oranges to great affect. There are a few dodgy camera tricks used to substitute SFX for budgetary reasons – the ‘going back in time’ effect basically involves spinning the camera around loads – but nothing cringe-inducing. B-movie veteran Louis Morneau does a fine job on direction duties, too, and manages to crank the tension up pretty high in places.

To be honest, as I watched Retroactive I was actually surprised this got consigned to straight-to-video obscurity. Until the end, that is, which is when I saw why. For fear of spoliers (as I think anyone whishing to join in with Mystery DVD Club should definitely try and pick this up) I won’t divulge why. But there’s a sniff of anticlimax, and what’s meant to be the final twist actually comes across as a little unfair when taken in context of the film’s time arc.

This also poses a couple of interesting moral questions: should one’s actions be held against them if they, and reality, have shifted back to before they actually committed them; and how many guilty lives should be sacrificed for an innocent one?

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Retroactive can definitely be classed as a guilty pleasure, with a great premise, loads of twists, solid direction and acting – all in all, a lot of fun. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say this is the first gem unearthed by the club.