Amongst all the supernatural shenanigans on display in Push, the greatest sensation I was left with was one of Déjà Vu. Exactly a year ago Doug Liman released a film about some young people with super-powers being chased by a severe African-American man heading up a secret government organisation dedicated to curtailing their liberty. A year ago they were jumping, and now they’re pushing.
At least lead villain Djimon Hounsou has forsaken Samuel L. Jackson’s appalling snow-white wig, but I fear that may only be for budgetary reasons.
Push follows a rag-tag collection of psychic and telekinetic refugees failing to hide from the US government’s own psychic forces in Hong Kong; what was exotic about Jumper‘s foreign locations is a little more suspect here, as we arrive in Hong Kong and stay there. This can only make us wonder if location work in that city turned out to be particularly convenient for this production, which would presumably have cost a great deal more if set in Los Angeles, New York, or possibly even Canada.
That said, the urban density and local colour provide a refreshingly gritty backdrop to a sadly stale set-up: as in Scanners, The Fury, The Power and pretty much any other super-psychic movie, the government want their psychics back and the psychics don’t want to go. Nothing wrong with revisiting this territory, but this film has neither the script nor the money to make the notion worthwhile.
There are many types of ‘gifted’ refugees in Push, not all of which are explained in the rather pat credits sequence narrated by Dakota Fanning. During this sadly compressed segment, we can feel the producers jettisoning exposition, mystery and build-up as ballast; they figure their young target audience will want all that yada-yada boring back-story quickly explained in order to get straight on with the action. The trouble is, they can’t afford very much action, and a slower build-up would have given the characters more to do.
Anyway, of the aforementioned types, young Fanning is a ‘watcher’, like her far more talented and imprisoned mother who seems to have orchestrated all the events in the movie off-screen, somewhere in the back-story; free-wheeling Chris Evans is trying to use his untamed telekinesis – he’s a ‘mover’ – to win at dice games with local hoods; Hounsou is a ‘pusher’, with the ability to make others believe his psychic suggestions.
Pushers are the Philip K. Dick element in the film, the ones who can make you kill your partner by convincing you that they murdered a brother you never had; the ones who can re-invent your life to suit their own purposes, and I spoil nothing by telling you that there are some moments in Push that will remind you of Total Recall, or even Blade Runner; had these been presented in the context of a coherent story that was half as smart as it likes to think it is, these moments would have been quite effective.
The incoherence stems partly from poor plotting, partly from lack of money, but mainly from the internal rules of the scenario, where ‘watchers’ such as Fanning – and her various opposite numbers among the bad guys – can see the future but also change it by discussing it or even knowing about it. Even once you obligingly make this mental leap in order to help director Paul McGuigan tell his story, you find that the evasive plot-logic is routinely discarded for effect. After that happens a couple of times, it’s hard to get invested again.
Sometimes, the logic is just plain absent: why is this government organisation routinely killing these precious, natural-born protégés with a super-serum intended to boost their abilities? If the serum worked, the prisoners would make mincemeat of their captors. Since it has never, ever worked, the government agency might as well just pump the poor souls full of drain-o. Are they deeply stupid as well as deeply evil?
Chris Evans remains a magnetic screen presence, along with the always-excellent Cliff Curtis, so their very brief on-screen time together is a nice wake-up moment. But these two are the only major players in the movie whose casting and character gels. The hugely talented Dakota Fanning is just a liiiittle too young in Push to carry off the adolescent-girl-straining-for-adulthood dynamic, and that fact makes her presence a bit uncomfortable; she’s not ready for the short skirts and beer-drinking, at least not in this movie. Djimon Hounsou is a fine actor given absolutely nothing to do in Push except be impassive and brood. That’s something that the likes of Clint Eastwood or Gary Sinise have always excelled at, but it’s not Hounsou’s metier, and he comes across as uninvolved rather than impenetrable or mysterious.
There are no big effects blow-outs in the movie, but two or three nice action sequences. The telekinetic fight in a restaurant between Chris Evans and government super-thug Neil Jackson is the movie’s set-piece, and this is the kind of all-out action that we needed more than one example of to sell Push on an action-movie ticket. Sadly, that’s pretty much it. The telekinetically-controlled guns that precede this sequence are unintentionally comic, and – in one notable shot at least – lack a reflection in the restaurant’s mirrored ceilings.
Push is X-Men on a tight budget, right down to recalling Hitler and the Nazi psychic supermen he wanted to create. Since I love this kind of ‘psychic-warrior’ set-up so much, I really do want to like the film; there are some good performances, an unusual location and arguably the best telekinetic fight scene yet committed to screen. I could forgive Push many things, including the lack of humour, and even be willing to check out the sequel so evidently set up at the end. In fact, I felt the same at the end of Jumper, which was a far sillier movie but at least stuck to the rules it created. But this, Push does not do; and if you’re not willing to do that much, there’s no movie-genre that can accommodate you.
Push opens in the UK this Friday (20th February 2009)