Saturday, January 7, 2012

Push Not The X-Men Rip-off I'd Feared, But Not Good Either.

The Good: Moments of concept and execution, Moments of character/acting
The Bad: A lot of the editing, Predictable character arcs, Some truly lackluster acting, Ultimately: mood.
The Basics: An average film, Push disappoints those who enjoy films about extraordinary people hunted by sinister conspiracies.

When I saw the lone preview I saw for Push, I immediately became concerned. Having generally enjoyed the films in The X-Men Trilogy, I became concerned that Push would simply be a cheap Rip-off. In all honesty, with so many "common people are superheroes" stories out there - like Heroes and The 4400 on television - it is a tough sell to try to fit into that niche and in the first trailer for Push all that impressed me was that Dakota Fanning looked nothing like the cherubic girl who had blown away audiences with her earliest performances for her maturity.

Still, as I arranged my schedule for a three-movie day, Push became the first film on my docket to take in. And truth-be-told, I was eager. I had only seen one trailer and I was ready to be surprised. So, I went into the theater fresh and ready . . . and when I left almost two hours later, I was so ambivalent it took me several minutes to realize I was disappointed. Truth be told, I am not even certain why I was so letdown by Push, as I had no real expectations for it. Still, at the end of the viewing experience, all I felt was unsurprised and unimpressed and I wanted my money back.

Ten years ago, Nick was abandoned by his father, a telekinetic being hunted by the infamous Division, in a bid to save the boy's life. Told only to expect a girl who would give him a flower at a point in the future and to save the world with her, Nick is shoved away and he witnesses a powerful Division Pusher, Carver, apparently kill his father. Ten years later, a young woman breaks out of a Division facility after being injected with a serum intended to boost superpowers in those who possess them. And two days from now, all hell breaks loose in Hong Kong as a deeply in debt Nick finds himself on the run from both Division agents and the Chinese mob.

But Nick's troubles are only just beginning, as he is met by a Watcher named Cassie Holmes, who sees a dark future for those who possess powers like she and Nick do. Nick, rusty with his own telekinetic powers as a mover, begins to trust Cassie when what she draws begins to come true and Nick's shortfalls with the Chinese mob begin to take a decidedly more dangerous and supernatural turn as they send Bleeders after him and Cassie. As Cassie begins to do battle with her Chinese counterpart, Nick finds the woman who supposedly possesses the case everyone is searching for and it turns out to be his old girlfriend, Kira. In a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, Nick and Cassie call in every favor and use every resource to save Kira, who appears to now be the first potential supersoldier for the U.S. government, and stop Carver from getting his hands on her and the serum that made her the way she is!

First, what Push does well is establish the precepts of the universe it takes place in. As the opening credits roll, a handy "history of psychic warfare" presentation is given by Cassie. Cassie informs us that it all began in 1945 with the Nazis attempting to develop psychic warfare. Those experiments continued after the war and powerful first generation Watchers, Movers, Pushers, Bleeders, Sniffers and Stitcher have given rise to second generations of the same, though many of them are rusty with their talents because they have been on the run from Division Agents. As Cassie ominously states, the problem is the psychics Division has access to just keep dying as lab rats in their attempts to create a standing army of psychic warriors.

Second, Push sticks to those precepts pretty well. Writer David Bourla and director Paul McGuigan do a decent job of creating a well-rounded universe and then playing by the rules they laid out, instead of simply ignoring them when they become inconvenient. As a result, there are some genuine twists and turns that work and Bourla does not fall back on too many of the obvious standards. For as little as I ultimately enjoyed Push, I was pleased when Nick's father did not resurface and many of the deaths that happen on-screen would be virtually impossible to undo. As well, there is some decent conceptual comedy in that Cassie admits that sometimes she gets things wrong and that while her ability to see the future manifests itself in drawings, she is quickly revealed to be a poor artist. This adds some texture to the movie that it might not otherwise have and that level of detail is decent.

In that regard, Push pulls a number of its punches to get the PG-13 rating. For sure, the inebriated thirteen year-old scene works, but a number of the deaths - like a Division Agent who blows his own brains out in the background - are relegated to background scenes or off-camera work. Arguably, more disturbing than the lack of blood and the on-screen deaths is the length (or lack thereof) of Cassie's skirt. For a thirteen year-old, Cassie is sporting a lot of leg and there is no real good reason for it.

That said, Push breaks even at best. As the movie began, I kept waiting for a moment when I would actually start caring about the characters. Unfortunately, Bourla and McGuigan fail to convince the viewer that any of the characters on screen deserve the lives they are fighting for, when they bother to fight at all. The best "common person superhero" stories make the viewer care by making a statement and expanding a concept outside the usual plot-driven story being told. So, for example, the films in the live-action X-Men saga easily use "mutants" as a metaphor for homosexuals and the struggles that gays, lesbians and bisexuals go through to live their lives, even ordinary ones. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and now Heroes) took the superhuman and mulled the consequences of mass producing him for a slave race or a standing army of disposable individuals. Push is nowhere near as clever.

Lacking in metaphor, lacking in a broad social context or even a statement that psychic warfare is somehow wrong, Push falls down as a terribly banal action-adventure flick. At no point do any of the characters distinguish themselves from the regular humans, outside the simple use of their abilities. Similarly, the end result, which is stated in the beginning as creating a branch of warriors with psychic abilities that would be virtually unstoppable, is never judged or adequately explored. "That's bad" might have been a good way to go about addressing it. As it is, Nick lamely declares himself apolitical at one point and the result is that Carver actually looks somewhat reasonable when he demands Kira be turned over; after all, she is the property of the U.S. Government. In other words, Push uses characters of extraordinary ability and it makes little or no statement on what their abilities mean.

At its worst, Push is utterly ridiculous. So, for example, when one Agent leaves the bathroom in Hong Kong and puts a bullet in his partner's brain, the entire establishment clears out. No one calls the police or tries to stop him in any way from going back into the bathroom from whence he came. So, while there is some attention paid to the survival instinct of the psychics, none of the mundane humans - if there even are any in the movie, which is up for debate - are defined with any realism.

None of the characters truly "pop" either. They are virtually all defined by their abilities. The sniffers are pretty dumb and their attempt to bring in Kira is so witlessly lacking in safeguards or precautions that they don't deserve to be on the federal payroll. The result is that a number of fine performers are given little or nothing to do. Djimon Hounsou plays Carver with a generic villainous quality that those who know his work have seen before. Camilla Belle is woefully miscast as Kira, at least once one knows that she and Nick had a relationship in the past. She looks far, far too young for the part.

Dakota Fanning does a decent job or a decent job with the material she is given. She enters the film with a decent presence and her delivery of lines like "I'm getting sick of drawing dead bodies" has a real resonance. Moreover, she is not playing on being cute or overly mature. Here, she plays a girl who has some real emotional damage and a similar reservoir of strength to call upon, which she does. Fanning adds a more edgy role to her repertoire as Cassie and she is almost convincing in her drunk scene as well. Much of the film rests on her performance and she plays the uncertainty perfectly.

At least as much rests on the back of actor Chris Evans. Evans, possibly best known for his role as Johnny Storm - the Human Torch - in the cinematic Fantastic Four endeavors (reviewed here!), is either unfortunately cast or unfortunately used as Nick. Evans plays the everyman fine for a few moments, but largely, his performance seems to be attempting to repress his winning smile and not always succeeding. Instead, he trolls through much of Push appearing more sure than his character is supposed to be and generally more quick-witted and unshaken than his character. In other words, Evans appears to certain through too much of the film, something his character is not intended to be. Evans never seems genuinely shaken and that becomes more of a liability to the story as it progresses.

Push is somewhat plagued by clunky editing and it is worth noting that director McGuigan does a good job with frenetic camera movements in some of the action sequences and they work wonderfully. But there are also some choppy edits that are more sloppy than stylistic. As well, too much of the story is telegraphed, like a flashback to the beginning the moment Cassie first mentions her mother (which visually implies something). Similarly, Bourla's characterization of Cassie involves some pretty sudden mood swings and because there is nothing bigger than the psychics and their immediate struggle, it is hard to care.

Ultimately, Push serves as entertainment and it flops by not being ambitious enough to try to be something more. Instead, those who enjoy superhero type films or stories of the extraordinary among us, are left feeling like they have watched a cheap knockoff of something much, much better.

For other films that focus on heroes in the process of becoming, please check out my reviews of:
X-Men: First Class
Green Lantern
I Am Number Four


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Index Page!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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