2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Dakota Fanning has had a busy week. Without any signs of having broken a sweat, the be-all and end-all of child stars has been popping up all over the place. Her 2008 films “Hounddog” and “The Secret Life of Bees” both just arrived on DVD, and she's been back and forth promoting the simultaneous theatrical releases of “Coraline,” a stop-motion animation project in which she voices the title character, and “Push,” a sci-fi thriller that casts her as a punked-out clairvoyant. I'd argue that Fanning's hard work is most apparent in the latter; she does some seriously heavy lifting here, enough that it's a wonder her twig-like legs don't snap in the process. Her surprisingly nuanced performance is the best – and most believable – thing about “Push,” an incomprehensible mind-bender that's big on style and short on substance.
Fanning plays Cassie, a second-generation “watcher” who sees mental glimpses of the future and draws the images in a chalkboard-like sketchbook. Cassie's mother also has this psychic gift (hence, second-generation), but she's been captured and locked up by The Division, a secret government agency that's been trying to form an army of these “special people” since they were bio-experiment guinea pigs back in WWII. In modern-day Hong Kong, Cassie meets Nick (Chris Evans of “Fantastic Four”), a twenty-something telekinetic, a.k.a. “mover,” who's been hiding out in the densely populated region since The Division murdered his similarly skilled father 10 years ago. Cassie needs Chris to help her find Kira (Camilla Shell, I mean, Belle from “10,000 B.C.”), an extremely powerful “pusher” who can project artificial and potentially fatal thoughts into the minds of others simply by turning her eyeballs shark-black (because the use of strange-colored eyeballs is one of the few ways Hollywood knows how to depict supernatural abilities at work). Kira recently escaped from The Division's headquarters with a briefcase containing a syringe containing a drug that, in certain hands, could throw off the agency's plan of world domination. Now, the bad guys, led by another “pusher,” Carver (two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou, sporting a gray goatee and reaching a career low), are after Kira and the clock is ticking.
I've been trying pretty hard to figure out what exactly the motivations are behind all these characters' actions and I've still got nothing. Everyone wants this briefcase (a la “Pulp Fiction”), but why? It contains a chemical that boosts the powers of the “special people,” but if Kira stole it from The Division's home base, don't they have more in stock? Why is it so special? And why does another group of characters – a Hong Kong gang comprised of glass and eardrum-shattering “screamers” and an even stronger “watcher” – want it? If the drug eventually kills any “special person” injected with it, what are their plans for it? And how does Cassie expect to use it to free her mother? Furthermore, how does Nick, whose only apparent ability is to move objects by will, orchestrate a climactic scheme that could've only been planned by anticipating the unknown? Is he a “watcher” as well? Who knows? There are enough unanswered and unanswerable questions here for 10 splitting headaches, and “Push” has plenty of problems long before one attempts to decipher its cheesecloth plot.
Though they never fully cultivate the concept (or any concept, for that matter), director Paul McGuigan (“Lucky Number Slevin”) and writer David Bourla (the little-seen and critically panned “Larceny”) position Nick as the reluctant, “chosen one”-type hero, like Keanu Reeves's Neo from the “Matrix” films. Neo was surrounded by environments of subterranean gloom and sleek, sterile perfection, making his extraordinary capabilities that much more mind-blowingly conspicuous. Nick is trapped in a land of overly-saturated colors and overly-relied upon Asian influences (the movie is like “Blade Runner” on crack), leaving his uncanny gifts lost in the frenetic mix. Neo was part of a film that used state-of-the-art technology to enhance the actions of its rather complex characters. Nick is part of a film that uses every stylistic enhancement available – jumpy photography, fast edits, skewed angles, fuzzy edges, computer effects – and has little time for character development. Neo was part of a story that, in the first installment, at least, took big, existential ideas and streamlined them into slick, fascinating entertainment. Nick is part of a story that seems to have taken a lot of big ideas, tossed them into a bag, shook them up and plucked them out at random.
And despite Reeve's reputation as a hopelessly one-note performer, he might look like Marlon Brando if he worked alongside Evans, an actor who, despite his good looks and adroit moves, is hopelessly, endlessly boring. Regardless of what else is happening in “Push” (and there's always A LOT happening), it's impossible to care about a lead character with such a leaden personality. Evans is matched by the snooze-inducing Belle, who's way too good at playing a girl who's dead inside. And then there's Fanning, the youngest member of the cast who runs circles around her co-stars and the material. She gets a lot of mileage out of a lousy script and, without any “pushing” abilities, she's the only player who projects the emotions of her character onto her face. The most exciting thing for me was watching Fanning and thinking that she might just make good on those Jodie Foster comparisons, surviving the rollercoaster transition from kiddie prodigy to respectable, grown-up artiste.
Since she already endured a much buzzed-about rape scene in “Hounddog,” it's not that shocking to see Fanning get drunk in “Push” (you read right). Still, one might wonder how the 13-year-old knew how to portray intoxication realistically. Here's my guess: she sat in on the pitch meeting for this movie, which is kind of like what would result if the creators of “The Matrix,” “Blade Runner” and “X-Men” got together, got hammered and then got to work.