Next (2007) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 96 min.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Thomas Kretschmann, Tony Kittles, Jose Zuniga, Jim Beaver, Peter Falk
Director: Lee Tamahori
Screenplay: Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh, Paul Bernbaum (based on the short story, "The Golden Man", by Philip K. Dick)
Review published April 28, 2007

Almost unrecognizably inspired by a story written by Philip K. Dick, Next takes one very good idea for a new kind of hero and stuffs it into a conventional, and mostly nonsensical thriller.  That good idea is more of a gimmick here: the hero of the film can predict what is going to occur to him up to about two minutes in the future, and can make alterations to what he does that allow him such nifty abilities as escaping apprehension or finding just the right line to say to a woman that will work on her.  He's already explored all the dead ends in his mind.

The man in this case is Cris Johnson (Cage, Ghost Rider), aka Frank Cadillac, who uses his ability to predict the future as part of a two-bit Las Vegas show.  Unfortunately for Cris, his activities have aroused the suspicion of FBI agent Callie Ferris (Moore, Children of Men), who tries unsuccessfully to coerce Cris into helping the government to uncover terrorist activities.  Cris, having been burned by scientific experimentation regarding his abilities as a youth, wants no more of it, but Ferris' gets much more aggressive, as her latest assignment demands his assistance:  discovering the location of a nuclear weapon set to explode in Los Angeles by a terrorist organization before it wipes out the entire city.   It's a cat-and-mouse game between Cris and agent Ferris, and caught in the middle is Cris's new lady friend, Liz (Biel, Home of the Brave), with whom Cris feels a sudden connection that produces a spike in his abilities.

The main premise of a man who can use his abilities to see into the very near future is the stuff that would be good given the right narrative context.  For instance, it would make a great television detective series, or even make for a very interesting character to feature in comic book series.  After 40+ years of living, it seems that Cris Johnson hasn't found much use for his abilities other than to earn a few bucks as a struggling illusionist and underachieving gambler.  Basically, if Cris is going to do anything of substance with his unique abilities, someone is going to have to force him to do it, and by Cris fighting tooth and nail against saving millions of Los Angelinos from certain death, he hardly makes for a sympathetic hero.  In fact, the only reason he begrudgingly consents at all is due to the fact that his new piece of fine-ass tail ends up embroiled in the terrorist plot, and even then, we're not entirely sure if he cares for her so much as he does her indefinable ability to increase his powers through her presence.

Other than the lack of identification with the hero, one of the bigger problems with Next comes through its casting.  All of the lead actors have been excellent in certain kinds of movies, but they also seem ill-suited for their respective roles here.  I'm sure that there must be women out there who find Cage's unconventional looks and sad-sack demeanor appealing, but his character in Next comes off a bit creepy, with his strange hairstyle and inability not to stare at the object of his desires.  Although the fact that he can seduce Liz because he knows all the right angles makes a certain sense, when he is shown as doing so merely through bad jokes and cheap parlor tricks makes her own character seem rather easy and one-dimensional, even if she does protest his advances at first.  Surely, Biel deserves more than just being an eye-candy plot device.  

Also, what's to make of Julianne Moore's performance as the tough-as-nails FBI agent?  She spits out orders to her associates using agency lingo as if she has no idea what any of it really means, and her constant state of intensity is a one-note performance that wears thin.  She is one of my favorite actresses, but in this film, I felt she was playing against weaknesses rather than to her strengths, resulting in a strained, underwhelming performance across the board.  I won't even discuss the bad guys of the film, as they are forgettable throwaway characters with no depth or discernable personalities of their own other than speaking with French accents.

Perhaps one shouldn't blame the actors themselves for not being able to make schlock characters appealing.  Perhaps the unappealing schlock nature of the film is more of a result of the directorial decisions of Lee Tamahori (xXx: State of the Union, Die Another Day), who sees conversations between two people as something that needs to be kept at a bare minimum, merely a set-up for his next shootout or explosive, overblown action scene.  If his action scenes could have been trimmed by half and the characters and their interactions developed twice fold, perhaps we'd have one of the finest sc-fi thrillers of the years, instead of an expensive, pulpy popcorn B-movie movie with big-name actors.

It's sometimes difficult to get a sense of Cris's abilities since they are so inconsistent.  In one scene, he has fully explored every possible outcome of a conversation within his two-minute span, and yet, he almost ends up drinking a drugged glass of juice despite hearing about the drugs in the juice directly after (it would only take 20 seconds in the future for him to have a full confession).  The ending of the film in particular, which has some sort of reboot that I can't reveal except to say that it has you question the worth of about half of the movie, seems about the worst gimmick of all, lifting the ironic twist of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" for reasons that defy all ability to rationalize, and taking far too long in doing so.

"I've seen every possible ending, and they all turn out bad for you", Cris exclaims during one of the film's climactic moments.  This statement could have just as easily been referring to the movie itself, which spends a great deal of time proverbially painting itself into a corner, and then adding insult to injury by just dodging the whole notion of closure at all.   By this time, you'll have had your fill of this thriller that sets up strict rules for you to try to follow and then never plays by them itself.  Throughout the film it shows you shocking things and then says, "Just kidding!" and then we play it out with a more beneficial outcome.  Basically, the movie is built on the fact that it is just a tease.  It's like hearing some drunk telling you a shaggy-dog story, drawing out his punch line beyond the joke's worth, and then proceeding to tell you that he messed up the joke and wants to tell it to you again the right way.  Frustrating.

If Next is atop a list of movies out there you've been wanting to see, my advice is to skip the the next movie on the list.

Qwipster's rating

©2007 Vince Leo