Remakes are not inherently misguided endeavors. It really depends on a combination of the material being remade and the people remaking it. In this instance the material is Total Recall -- director Paul Verhoeven's wickedly fun, nerdy, sci-fi action adventure that was based somewhat loosely on the Phillip K. Dick short, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Is it a perfect movie? Nope. And a remake certainly doesn't erase the endearing original. But the problem is this: Putting a guy like Len Wiseman (Underworld) in the director's chair is only a slightly better choice than hiring he-of-the-crappy-yet-unkillable Resident Evil franchise, Paul Anderson -- directors with sharp visual chops, doused in over-stylized visions meant to cover for their shallowness in a skillset that great directors must possess. Put Cronenberg or Aronofsky (who was attached to remake another Verhoeven classic, Robocop) on something like Total Recall and you could expect visual excellence as well as cinematic and narrative depth -- or at least a reason to get excited about a remake.
Since Wiseman kind of sucks, and his Recall does lose a lot of the humor, subtext and weirdness -- not to mention Verhoeven's trademark graphic violence -- you'd think I'd have hated it. But, weirdly enough the new Recall does its own thing just enough to actually set itself apart. Despite being inferior, it has some heart.
The year is 2084 and years of chemical warfare have rendered much of the Earth's surface uninhabitable. The last two viable places for human life, The United Federation of Britain and The Colony -- located roughly in Australia -- are joined together by a massive elevator, dubbed The Fall that travels straight through the planet past the Earth's core. It's what passes for a political statement about empire.
Doug Quaid (Colin Farrell) lives in The Colony -- a sprawling megacity of warren-like apartments and districts improbably stacked as high as wide. Quaid commutes The Fall to his job building robocops (ha) in the UFB. Despite his supportive and crushingly hot wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), Quaid feels adrift. When he hears about Rekall, a salon that can implant memories of your ideal good time so vivid it's as though you lived them, Quaid decides -- against the advice of his best and seemingly only friend, Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) -- to go on a mental vacation as a secret agent. Predictably, all hell breaks loose.
Suddenly his wife is trying to kill him and he's being chased by robot and human cops. Turns out he already is a secret agent (or is he?) named Hauser, tasked by the UFB's ruthless Chancellor Cohaagen (a fun Bryan Cranston) to infiltrate the Resistance led by Matthias (Bill Nighy) through his colleague, Melina (Jessica Biel). Matthias seeks to liberate the Colony from the UFB and Cohaagen's plans to destroy it. Quaid, realizing that he's a pawn in Cohaagen's game seeks to unite with the Resistance, though their trust in the seeming double agent might be gravely misplaced.
Then lots of shit explodes because that's the thing Len Wiseman excels at.
Like Michael Bay with a better sense of spatial cohesion and less misogyny.
Make no mistake: Wiseman's Total Recall is not as fun or unique as the original. Or even that original. The design work is densely detailed but also derivative, ripping whole pages from Blade Runner (another Dick adaptation) be it the architecture of the rain-soaked megalopolises, the mishmash of languages that spackle the marquees of local businesses or the flying cars that bear a distinct resemblance to the "spinners" of Ridley Scott's sci-fi masterpiece. Sure, tons of films have been influenced by the look of Blade Runner, but they haven't been lifted this directly since Luc Beeson's The Fifth Element.
But it still looks great. The FX work is largely (and admirably) practical and Wiseman's darkly dystopian visual style from the Underworld films makes for a decent match with a script that goes full on humorless -- aside from some annoying shout outs to the original. Quaid noting he always wanted to go to Mars might have been fine, but the tri-boobed prostitute makes no sense here, since there is no mutant sub-plot and (sadly) no Quato. This Recall would have been more immersive if it acted as if the first one didn't exist. The Easter eggs only serve to remind how much weirder, funnier and inventive Verhoeven's film was.
Wiseman's affinity for well-paced action -- of which there is plenty -- is deserving of the big screen, as well as some game performances that he's less responsible for in Farrell, Beckinsale and Bryan Cranston -- doing his best Ronny Cox. Biel is a void of personality. They seem to be running on inherent talent.
But the realignment of the basic elements of Verhoeven's iteration, combined with Wiseman's shallow narrative senses -- and a script by a legion of writers from Kurt Wimmer to the great (and very dead) Dan O'Bannon -- strip this almost Total Remake down to the roots; a passably enjoyable, kinetically popcorn version of a better film that will always exist. Lest we forget.
Pretty much the only reason to see The Watch (formerly known as Neighborhood Watch until the Trayvon Martin murder) is if you are a huge fan of Richard Ayoade. If you've been an aficionado of the British comedy star's work, be it as Moss on the The IT Crowd, or lesser known roles in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace or his late-night talk show satire Man to Man with Dean Learner, The Watch represents a unique opportunity to see Ayoade on the big screen -- outshining the tired Ben Stiller, the weirdly manic Vince Vaughn, and hopefully spawning a spin-off film with the reliable Jonah Hill.
Evan (Stiller) is a childless Costco manager with a cute wife (Rosemarie DeWitt, who was better off in Your Sister's Sister) who indoctrinates himself into the affairs of his Ohio community and generally comes off as an annoyingly concerned dweeb. When the overnight security guard at his Costco is brutally murdered (his skin was stolen) Evan, despite his myriad community commitments (and trying to impregnate his wife) decides to form a neighborhood watch to hunt down the killer.
After imploring the audience at a football game to join him in his quest, he garners three recruits: Bob (Vaughn), a married, bored father of a slutty teenager; Franklin (Hill), a Travis Bickle wannabe who washed out of police recruitment and Jamarcus (Ayoade), a divorced British expat who's just up for some fun.
But it turns out the murderer is actually an alien (the outer space variety), and soon the band of misfit, proto-cops realizes that perhaps there may be more than one interstellar asshole in their midst -- hiding in plain sight.
From a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (with a seeming rewrite by Jared Stern), Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod) leadenly directs his leads in a story that could have been fun in more able hands. It's really the script that falls short -- Rogen and Goldberg might be burning out where alien comedies are concerned -- but the way Schaffer wastes genuinely funny actors (even at their worst) is nearly criminal. It's not painful in a Cop Out sense (yes, that film is still a bar for torture) but it's sad to watch a cast work so hard for a flawed script and a director seemingly tone deaf to comedic timing or any sense of visual style. It's like watching a beetle try to crawl from a toilet bowl just before you flush it.
Stiller is distinctly annoying, while Vaughn is bereft of the Made cool that he sadly still thinks he owns. Hill is waiting for a better film, while Ayoade -- like you didn't know -- along with Billy Crudup, as Evan's super creepy neighbor stand out as the only bright spots.
The jokes fall flatter than a used coffee filter. While the actors are clearly having fun ad-libbing some of the better lines, the whole of the rote, predictable story is a chore almost unbroken by wit, anything particularly funny or genuinely endearing.
I heard some easily amused people laugh.
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