2008-03-06 / On the Town

"Vantage Point"

Directed by: Peter Travis

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Matthew Fox

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for adult language, violence)

Running time: 91 minutes

Best suited for: the "thrilleras-magic-trick" crowd

Least suited for: thriller realists

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa did it back in 1951 with "Rashomon." Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras did it in '69 (and won an Oscar) with the politically charged "Z." Sidney Lumet toyed with it in "Murder on the Orient Express." "Run Lola Run" did it very nicely, and a few years ago, Greg Marcks did it even better with the clever "11:14." All dealt with a single incident, a snippet of time, as seen from multiple points of view.

Film is the quintessential prejudicial medium- forcing us to see only what the director intends for us to see. It feels somehow voyeuristic to peek behind the fabric of traditional cinema- to escape both the traditional flow of time and sequence. A really great movie swallows us completely, allowing us to forget that we're caught in a cinematic time warp.

"Vantage Point" only partially succeeds in doing that, but it's not wholly the fault of the director or the film.

Dennis Quaid plays Secret Service agent Travis Barnes, back on the job after taking a bullet for the president sometime before. Matthew Fox is his partner, pushing Barnes to get "back in the saddle again," even though others aren't sure the man's fully ready yet. The president (William Hurt) is in Spain for an important anti-terrorism summit.

As the president is about to speak from the podium, two shots ring out and he drops. Bedlum ensues, additional distant shots ring out, and a moment later an explosion rips through the entire area. A TV producer (Sigourney Weaver) captures the entire sequence on multiple cameras, as well as a good chunk of what's happened and why, although we don't yet know it.

Forest Whitaker plays an American tourist who manages to capture additional clues on his hand-held video camera. Had video cams been in vogue back in 1963- well, how America might have changed.

But I digress. "Vantage Point" unfolds at a frenetic pace, and seems to rewind and unfold again just as we're about to catch our breath- to catch a clue as to who's done what and why. Nothing, you see, is as it originally appears.

If there's a flaw with "Vantage Point," it's director Peter Travis' decision to cheat perhaps a tad too much- pulling away from each subjective truth a moment before it's played out fully, leaving us occasionally more than curious- frustrated, in fact. Sure, it's a plot device, the nature of the beast, but it tends to tug at our reality. More than once I was aware that I wasn't watching subjectivity but rather a sort of censorship. Or perhaps the glimpse of a wire behind the magician's back.

The other problem is the incident in question: The audience is subjected to a rather horrific event several times- an uncomfortable feeling for some who might feel that once, perhaps, is enough. Despite all the implied carnage, however, "Vantage Point" is relatively blood-free.

About midway through, once all the various stages are set, the film takes off and sets about orchestrating its dizzying conclusion. It delivers nicely- at a "Bourne Ultimatum" pace, complete with a frenetic, narrowstreet car chase- although I don't believe that either terrorists or the U.S. government are as remotely clever as portrayed.

Doublecrosses and splitsecond maneuvers abound and, while totally satisfying on film, such synchronized antics would have pulled straight 10s at the Olympics. Can we guess which side finally pulls the dismal 9.9 score and ultimately loses?

Plot-hole specialists can probably count into the double digits, but for most of us, the whodunit element is sufficient, the action admirable, and overall "Vantage Point" isn't a bad multifaceted ride.

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