Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Push Back

I'm pretty lucky to have friends who like the same sort of movies I do. When Push came out last year, I never had the chance to see it in theaters, and it's time in the theater was short, anyway. I never really had a chance to see it, so when the opportunity to borrow someone's copy came up, I leaped at the chance to temporarily acquire this for my viewing pleasure. After all, an alternative to the over-the-top superhero stories that Marvel and DC have been cranking out with their favorite children in the lead, let alone marketing such an independent superhuman film to the big screen, is no small feat. Even if it had been a financial failure (which it wasn't), it would have been a victory for the independent filmmakers who don't want to make the next Superman or Spiderman films.

Funny meeting you here...
Push, obviously not the movie based on the Sapphire book of the same name, takes place almost entirely in Hong Kong. Nick Grant (Chris Evans) is a second-generation superhuman. Nick's father was a powerful type of superhuman known as a Mover, someone who could move objects with his mind. Nick can Move, too, but his talents are relatively weak, mostly honed by trying to rig back-alley dice games. Nick's father was killed by a secret organization of the US government known as Division, when he refused to join the organization. Nick, running away, has ended up here to avoid them. There are numerous types of superpowered beings in the world, we are told. Watchers can predict the future. Sniffers are like human bloodhounds. Bleeders send out sonic pulses that tear you apart from the inside. Shifters can manipulate an item's appearance. Shadows can block the tracking ability of Sniffers and sometimes Watchers. And Pushers can implant ideas and memories into your head that are so real you're convinced they really happened. Division wants all these superhumans in one place, for use by the government as weapons against their enemies. To that effect, they've been developing a drug to boost the powers of superhumans, only the drug has the nasty side effect of killing everyone who's injected with the serum. At least, until one unlucky soul survives, and escapes to Hong Kong...

Perhaps not surprisingly, this new Chinese pop duo haven't quite worked out
The film has on tap a surprisingly talented cast of people, whether on-the-way-up stars or underrated performers. I've seen a lot of Chris Evans lately, and his talents are obvious to anyone bothering to pay attention. He plays his role as the perfect blend of in over his head bravado and sincere honesty. I wonder how good he'll be for the starring role in next year's Captain America, but only because that character is so relatively simpler than many of the roles he's done in recent years. But even he's overshadowed by Dakota Fanning, whose superpower seems to be acting circles around everybody else in the room with her. She plays a punk-ish second generation Watcher who wants to break her mother out of a Division holding area back home. Fanning is another one of those actors who I've witnessed be lauded without having actually seen any of her work. Now I know, and it's damned mystifying how someone so young could be so imbued with talent that it's actually SCARY. At least it doesn't seem to be going to waste, even if Oscar roles haven't reared their heads her way yet.Camilla Belle is surprisingly good as the Pusher who manages to escape from Division. I say surprisingly good because I really hadn't seen her in anything and had all but tossed her aside as another side effect of the Twilight phenomena. So she has actual talent? Nice. She has great charisma for the screen, especially with Evans, which is good since their on-screen romance is half the point of the film.

Hounsou (l) and Belle are equally good here
Great small roles don't go to waste when you cast Cliff Curtis, Ming Na, Maggie Siff and Xiao Lu Li as acquaintances and enemies to the heroes. Xiao, a Golden Calf-winning Chinese actress, is a treat as one of the more charismatic villains of the film, and it's a pleasure to see Siff in anything since I have enjoyed her performance in what I've seen of Mad Men. The only really disappointing role in the film is that of the main bad guy. Don't get me wrong: Djimon Hounsou is a damned talented actor, and I believe he did everything he could with this role, that of the human face of Division, a Pusher who is attempting to find Belle's escaped inmate. His character is also the one who killed Nick's dad so long ago. The problem is the filmmakers never seem to know whether this guy is straight up badass or confusingly sympathetic. Maybe he's more like a Lex Luthor type, so arrogant that he simply fails to bother to cover his tracks or make sure everything is working right as to leave himself open for Nick's Superman. Okay, that makes some sense, but it wasn't obvious while I was watching that this was the case, nor did he make too convincing a bad man. Thankfully, he's not the only villain on the scene, as a Hong Kong Triad of superpowered Bleeders balance out the battlefield somewhat, lending more threat to the evil permeating the film.

No, this isn't a scene from the new Home Alone flick...
As I mentioned, the film was shot in Hong Kong, and it makes for a viable and unique location for this type of film. It's gritty, messy, choked with people, simultaneously the best and worst place to hide from the world. The narrow streets and passages combined with the occasional wide-open basketball courts and sky-rise rooftops make for an interesting environment in which to make this movie. Simply put, Push doesn't FEEL  like other films of it's type because it's like if the X-Men were living in a dirty slummy apartment complex instead of a quiet suburban mansion (yes, I know the X-Men now live on an island off the coast of California, but the X-Mansion is more well known). It's a different world for superhumans than we're used to from comics, and it's a refreshing change of pace.

She'll simply watch your every move... THEN she'll kill ya
The special effects are something to see. While decidedly low-tech, the effects are nonetheless engaging and realistic, perhaps due to their low-tech origins. The film's aforementioned grittiness lends itself well to this end, making things like energy balls, shattering glass, collapsing structures and dilating pupils are so real they seamlessly blend into the rest of the setting. Director Paul McGuigan can be properly given credit here for his great work using all the tools at his disposal to make each scene work. Is it as thrilling as the best parts of Watchmen or Resident Evil or even Scott Pilgrim? No, but nor does it have the lulls in between that harm action films so much. It simply is a well-balanced movie that doesn't take itself too seriously to detract from the action while also not letting the fights draw you out of the story. Unlike so many similar films, everything happens for a reason, and it all makes sense.

"So... how much do you think it's worth?"
To sum up, Push is an interesting, exciting, but also thought-provoking film that definitely stands out as one of last year's underrated titles. It's not perfect, as a little more attention to Hounsou's character would have made the film much better, but what little is wrong with it doesn't detract from what's enjoyable. If you're looking for a superhero-type film with enough action to get by but not the cliched caricatures from fifty years ago, give this a shot.


elmo said...

The legend of Chris Evans grows! I have Losers on the way and I'll likely see this one while awaiting Captain America. Don't get me started on how brilliant he was in Scott Pilgrim...

Gianni said...

Yeah, Evans has had a good couple of years going into 2011. I don't think I've disliked him in anything I've seen so far.