Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
With a gravity defying car chase scene reminiscent of the thrilling twists and turns in "Ronin," tall in his seat belt heroics from Randy Quaid, single-minded (but oh so tech savvy) villains and enough flash backs to rival a Grateful Dead concert, "Vantage Point" is full of free-wheeling action. If you like "24" or enjoyed Clint Eastwood's die-imperialist-pig thriller "In the Line of Fire," then you'll appreciate Vantage Point's multi-layered and occasionally outlandish plots.
"Vantage Point" takes the same incident (the assassination of United States President Henry Ashton) and replays it through the eyes of eight witnesses and subversives. We see the assassination first through the eyes of Type A News Director Rex Brooks, (an annoying Sigourney Weaver), then through grizzled Secret Service Agent Thomas Barnes (watchful, heroic Dennis Quaid), who's returning to duty after being shot. The point of view switches to Spanish police officer Enrique (a tortured Eduardo Noriega), followed by right place, wrong time American tourist Howard Lewis (virtuous Forest Whitaker, who becomes the film's Zapruder when he films Ashton's assassination); then shoots to the punctured President himself (a determined William Hurt, who gets my vote for a job well done). The final and most intriguing piece of the puzzle is seen through the eyes of a trio of demolition happy terrorists -- Said Taghmaoui, as the diabolical Suarez, Edgar Ramirez as reluctant killing machine Javier, and Ayelet Zurer as Veronica, who has the allure of a succubus and the conscience of Joseph Stalin.
Taylor: For what?
Barnes: For getting me back out.
Taylor: Don't thank me yet.
The idea of telling a story in flashbacks through the eyes of multiple characters isn't a new one. The 1950 Japanese film "Rashomon" is one of the best known cinematic examples, as is Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." By the time the action stops flashing back to President Ashton's demise, "Vantage Point" has created as many questions as it has provided answers. Ironically, Matthew Fox, who portrays Barnes' partner, Agent Kent Taylor, is a featured actor. Fox plays physician hero Jack Shephard on "Lost" (a TV show that answers plot twists by creating bigger plot twists). Fox's casting as Taylor should be a clue that everything and everyone is not what they appear to be.
Stoke up the popcorn popper for the chase scene at the end of the film. It's an edge-of-your-seat thriller that out speeds "Bullet," and is on par with the claustrophobic vehicular voracity displayed in the aforementioned Robert DeNiro's classic, "Ronin." It's also improbable as hell. For starters, you can't drive a car the size of a mailbox down a flight of stairs without turning its undercarriage into Swiss Cheese - and characters survive head ons and roll overs that should have at least mussed their hair. But the fleet-footed street chase and the harrowing highway mayhem sure is fun to watch!
"Vantage Point" asks you to suspend logic and common sense - Barnes dodges bullets, bricks, buildings, and buses all in the same scene. Lewis develops equally acrobatic skills. He survives the initial terrorist assault, despite being so close to the bomb he's knocked down like a ten pin. (Ditto for Barnes and Taylor). He also managers to dodge skidding, airborne autos in order to pull off an improbable rescue without getting winded, scratched, or dirty.
The audience is never given a reason for the terrorists elaborate assassination attempt. They coerce an army special ops assassin into their fold, turning him into a human body bag machine. Another member of their crew sacrifices himself as a mobile bomb in order to distract the police from their real target. Even Kamikaze pilots were given an explanation why they had to dodge plane-shredding anti-aircraft shells from U.S. ships in the hope of smashing their puny fighters against their decks. No one whispers in anyone's ear that what they're doing is for the love of Allah or to build up their bank accounts. We learn why Javier packs an arsenal, but Veronica and Suarez's bloodletting motives are never revealed. No plausible explanation is given when one of the characters goes Benedict Arnold either. Is he getting paid? Is his betrayal an act of vengeance or blind faith? (Religious dedication, not the group Blind Faith.) Without an explanation for his deceit, this nifty plot twists seems more like a contrived pretense for a chase scene.
There are also a few screaming bloopers that the editors should have picked up. Just before Mathew Fox (Taylor) smashes up his car you can see the actor's double - a doughy dummy - in the driver's side window. Whitaker, who looks like he seldom missed the cast buffet, somehow manages to run with two men half his weight and age when the odds say he should be collapsing to the ground waving for an oxygen mask. Whitaker is also involved in another film faux pas. After nearly being blown out of his shoes, Whitaker's Lewis comes to and spots his battered and dusty camcorder nearby. Seconds later he's running through the streets with a brand new, dust and dent-free camcorder.
Because there are so many points of view, the film teeters on the precipice of becoming a dramatic version of "Groundhog Day." By the time you get Suarez's perspective, there are so many subtle factoids to remember you may have to organize your notes in file folders to keep track of them -- or throw your hands up in frustration. Like I said, the writer, neophyte Barry Levy, forgot to give slippery Suarez and villainous Veronica a motive, so if they couldn't tie every single plot and subplot, you shouldn't stress out either.
The actors are dialed into the action, ranging from the tiniest bit part to the leads. Dennis Quaid, who once dropped 40 pounds to play a spectacular tubercular Doc Holiday in Kevin Costner's otherwise off-target "Wyatt Earp," is equally invested wearing Barnes' troubled skin. Quaid's character falls in line with the craggy, battle-weary, socially impotent anti-heroes Clint Eastwood played in the later part of his career. Barnes, who once took a bullet for Ashton, knows that being the first line of defense for the President is not only his job; it's his destiny, his reason for being. But he's also fully aware that while his body has recovered, his psyche hasn't, and his fellow agents question whether he's ready to return to duty:
Agent Holden (talking to Taylor about Barnes): What are the chances he freaks out in the middle of our walk?
Barnes (responding as he walks past the other agents): I'd say they're 50-50.
Forest Whitaker conveys another commendable portrayal of a cuddly everyman, an unassuming, gentle giant who rises above his shyness and ineptitude. Some of the other American actors don't fare nearly as well. Sigourney Weaver must've needed a payday, because her role amounts to a cameo, and her portrayal of Rex Brooks is so bitchy and heartless it's a wonder no one lobbed a bomb at her long before she got the chance to honcho a news show. Richard T. Jones (CIA Agent Holden) is involved in one of the movie's edge-of-your-seat chases, then disappears and is never heard from again. Bruce McGill (miles removed from his motorcycle frat boy character "D-Day" in "Animal House") makes the most of his few minutes in your face as a war-hungry political advisor, yet we never learn what's behind his motive to turn Morocco into a parking lot. Matthew Fox isn't playing a noble hero like he does on "Lost," so it's nice to see the man can handle a character whose fingers may be dirty. William Hurt gives off a presidential vibe, and if you get the chance to rewind the movie you'll notice the subtle differences between his portrayal of President Ashton before and after he's shot. (That's a spoiler, ma'am.)
The rest of the international cast may not be recognizable, but they will be if they keep giving such first-rate performances. Ayelet Zurer (Veronica) goes from seductress to assassin in one reptilian breath, and mastermind Said Taghmaoui (Suarez), is equally venomous; cordial, innocuous one moment, and iron-hearted and callous the next. Eduardo Noriega's Enrique is as dedicated to his job as Quaid's Barnes. Unlike Barnes, Enrique wears his hurt and his passions on his sleeve, and Noreiga's successfully portrays Enrique's self-martyrdom with a hangdog glance or desperate grimace. Edgar Ramirez also effectively transmits Javier's conflicted state, and actually makes you feel sorry for his plight - even as he methodically guns down a dozen hapless C.I.A agents.
From my point of view, "Vantage Point" is worth hanging in there to reach its slam bang conclusion. It may not always be believable, but stuff blows up real nice and there's no implausible love angle to get in the way, just breakneck action and plenty of it.