The Lazarus Project

  The Lazarus Project
  Paul Walker - Piper Perabo

  3.5 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

"The Lazarus Project" is the little movie that can. A direct to DVD venture, it entertains and thrills without wading too deeply into the pool of excess many sci-fi movies tend to exhibit. The title is a dead giveaway that something is afoot, but first-time director and writer John Glenn harnesses several fictional icons - including unbearable loss and creeping paranoia - and gives them a fresh approach by slowly revealing clues relating to the character's motives. Above all, "The Lazarus Project's" perplexing plot creates a wave of tension that overrides an ending that's a bit too neat.

Ben Garvey (Kevin Costner look alike Paul Walker) seems to have finally gotten his life on track. He's served out his parole, is a loyal, respected employee at the local plant, has a loving wife who's studying to be a real estate agent, and dotes on his precocious daughter, who's equally devoted to him. When the suits at the main office get wind of Ben's unsavory past, he's unexpectedly fired, which forces him to throw in his lot with his just sprung career criminal brother, Ricky, (mousey Shawn Hatosy). Ricky's got a plan to rob a stash of gold dust from a lab. Maybe Ben should've tried to apply for unemployment before backsliding into his old profession. The robbery ends badly in a blaze of bullets, and Ben winds up on death row. Given a lethal injection, Ben's final thoughts are of his family and going home...

...Then Ben wakes up, finding himself wandering along a rainy road near Dunham, a small town in Oregon. Talk about dead man walking! Ben's picked up by kindly Father Ezra (a lurking Bob Gunton), and told he's the new caretaker at the mental hospital Ezra supervises. The incessant rain showers in the area add to the hospital's grey, gloomy surroundings and should be a hint to Ben that he should have kept walking.

More determined than ever to return home, Ben encounters Avery (a worried and weary looking Lambert Wilson), a skulking guardian angel who informs Ben he's been given a second chance at life, that he needs to make amends for what he's done, and he should forget about his wife and children:

Ben:  Where am I?
Avery: This is Oregon.
Ben:    But I'm alive. What does that make you then?
Avery: A guide.

Sudden flashbacks, a curious stray dog incessantly digging in his yard, and a pair of patients who insist they're all being watched convince Ben that nothing is as it seems. Was he really killed and resurrected as Father Ezra and Avery insist? Is he in the grip of the lethal injection and dreaming the events? The answer is stock and not all that original, but the action isn't, and Glenn's tight direction and the surrealistic, uneasy plot make "Lazarus" worthy escapism.

Producer/star Paul Walker gives a heroic performance as Ben. He's a northwestern Clint Eastwood, his piercing eyes rimmed with pain, his jaw clenched in determination. His dialogue is economical and clipped, maximizing the script's apprehensive atmosphere. In case of "The Lazarus Project" less is more, and Ben is the ideal tortured repentant victim/hero who simply wants his family life back.

Bob Gunton has played a lot of creeps (most notably the sneaky sadistic warden in "The Shawshank Redemption"). You see his flinty eyes dart to and fro and you know he's up to no good. So the turn his seemingly benevolent role takes isn't a surprise. Despite being typecast, Gunton is a seasoned pro who knows how to turn up the tension.

Looking as if she stepped out of the pages of Cosmopolitan, Linda Cardelli (Sam Taggert on "ER"), plays Julie, one of the hospital's shrinks. It's hard to believe that Julie's flaxen hair and make up would remain so flawless in a town where it seems to rain 90% of the time, or, given her job, that she's bother wearing any make up at all. But Cardelli has a way of throwing out measured looks or adding a sympathetic tone to her voice that shows Julie's more than just the flick's fox, and it helps make her character's struggle to balance her professional and personal interest in Ben more believable.

Piper Perabo exudes mid-western cowgirl grit as Ben's loyal and suffering wife, Lisa. Lambert Wilson gives Avery the edge of a fallen angel, and Tony Curran's tense and troubled portrayal of the violent and suicidal William makes his every cryptic line seem ominous.

Lazarus Resurrected... The Extras

Perhaps John Glen and Paul Walker should have applied for some government funding, because "The Lazarus Project" skimps on extras. (With all the budget cuts going on, somebody should've stepped forward to help out a guy named after one of our most famous astronauts!) The DVD includes two deleted scenes, "Visiting William," and "Wine Festival." Part of the "Visiting William" scene was included in the film; leaving in William's incessant question posed to Ben ("Why do we suffer?") wouldn't have hurt the plot and would have helped give the gibberish spouting William a more sympathetic side. I can see why the "Wine Festival" scene was cut - it doesn't do much to promote the film's tension, although it's a shame its exclusion came at the expense of Gunton, who offers some useful tidbits about Father Ezra's past.

"The Lazarus Project" would fit right in with the better programming on the Sci-Fi Channel. It relies on tension rather than violence, and although it has a pat ending, the main action at the mental hospital will keep you guessing, and more importantly, it'll keep you watching. "Lazarus" is a successful project.



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