The crime thriller "Déjà Vu" starring Denzel Washington is certainly not the first movie to dabble in time travel. But it's the first to cash in on the trendy science of superstring theory. To be exact, the movie is not strictly about traveling back in time; it's about traveling into parallel universes of the past.
For those of you who go into brain freeze at the mere mention of these concepts, you will find little relief in "Déjà Vu." I salute director Tony Scott and his screenwriters Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii for attempting something new in the crime genre. Instead of the usual blam-blam stylistics that we have come to expect from the oeuvre of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, we have here a wrinkle in the space-time continuum – a thriller that wants us to use our brains. This is always a highly risky commercial proposition.
The problem is, the filmmakers aren't the clearest of thinkers. Once the superstring concept kicks in, they seem as lost as we are, and jawboning about fate and God and playing God doesn't change that.
Washington plays Doug Carlin, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose investigation into a deadly terrorist explosion of a New Orleans ferry leads him to a top-secret crime lab. Led by an FBI operative (an incongruously dweeby Val Kilmer), the lab seems to be merely an eye in the sky with a photographic backlog of everything – and I mean everything – under its watch.
But its reach proves far greater than that. The key to solving the crime lies in unraveling the murder of Claire (Paula Patton), a beautiful woman whom Doug and his brainiac voyeurs home in on. Doug realizes that, with a little temporal rejiggering, he might be able to save both her and the hundreds blown up on the ferry, who include many American servicemen and women.
Needless to say – shades of "Laura" – Doug falls in love with Claire, or at least her image. Presumably this is because he needs an extra incentive to solve the crime. For good measure, the terrorist, played with hollow-eyed steeliness by Jim Caviezel, has offed Doug's ATF partner. Clearly Washington had a plethora of choices in answer to the oft-asked Method Actor's query, "What's my motivation?"
Still, it's a bit unclear just who Doug is. Since it is now de rigueur for celluloid crime investigators to be a bit screwloose, he initially comes across in the eccentric Monk mold. But then the filmmakers resort to standard-issue heroics. As Doug dips in and out of worm holes, executing wheelies and skidding U-turns while wearing boundary-bending goggles, he loses whatever specialness he had. He becomes a cog in the pyrotechnics.
This may be the first crime thriller to explicitly utilize superstring theory but, in its woozy romanticism, it's not that far removed from this year's other time-warp movie, "The Lake House," about two lovers living in parallel years – or "Frequency," which starred Jim Caviezel as a good guy.
What gives the film its jolt of urgency is its New Orleans setting. "Déjà Vu" is the first major movie to be shot there since the city's devastation. The images of real-world destruction undercut the trumped up action. Doug's obsession with going back in time to rescue Claire and the bombing victims functions as a metaphor for something far starker. What we really want him to do is turn back the clock on the horror of Katrina. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, disturbing images, and some sensuality.