The Crushed Film Festival presents: Virtuosity
The Movie: Virtuosity
The Crush Object: William Fichtner, initially
The Story: LAPD is working with LETAC, a Halliburton-type software company, on developing a virtual-reality program that uses a composite virtual killer named SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe) to help law-enforcement agents identify and catch the real thing. The program still has a few kinks in it, though, so LETAC has convicts doing the beta — including former cop Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington), who's serving time for the revenge killing of the man who murdered his family, and participating in LETAC's QA in exchange for the possibility of an early release.
Naturally, Something Goes Terribly Wrong when Barnes's in-program partner, another convict named Donovan (former next big thing Costas Mandylor, unrecognizable here), gets his neurons overloaded big-time and dies; the district attorney (Louise "Nurse Ratched" Fletcher) (…right?) wants the program shut down, but the programmer finds a way to let "Sid" live on…outside the machine. Dun, sort of. Barnes is the only one who has any shot at catching Sid, but he'll need an unconditional parole to do it — and the guy who killed his wife and daughter is one of the killers used to make up Sid's "personality." Can he get Sid back into the machine, and save consulting shrink Madison Carter's (Kelly Lynch) daughter from getting blown to smithereens, without letting Sid taunt him into making a mistake?
Spoiler: yes, he can, so let's move on to a more important question — is there anyone who isn't in this piece of shit? Because the daughter is played — relatively well, grading on a child-actor curve — by Kaley Cuoco. Traci Lords has a scene as a nightclub singer. You've even got a couple of Hey, It's That Guy!s in the persons of William Forsythe and Kevin J. O'Connor. And what ever happened to Kelly Lynch, anyway? She's another one whose on-the-verge never quite…verged.
Despite the heavy-hitting cast doing the best it can under the circumstances, the movie is bad. The "we've lost control of the machines!"-genre picture has irresistible potential, and can turn out chillingly well (2001: A Space Odyssey), but just as often, the film is dated the minute it's released (The Net), and the mercifully short-lived VR subgenre fared the worst in that regard. Virtual reality never gained the foothold in everyday life that filmmakers in the '90s assumed it would one day. And we didn't have the technology to sell the idea on celluloid: the graphics inevitably look like colorized Pong; worse, the story forces the actors to hang from claw-like contraptions, or whirl around in Da Vinci-ish globes while wearing neon scuba suits, all the while frugging and making agonized cortical-meltdown faces. The directors cut frantically between these chimpy Strasberg exercises and blocky computer monitors that depict brain activity with what looks like an orgy of potholders…it's just not good storytelling. It can't be.
Virtuosity has more promise than the boring and poorly styled The Lawnmower Man (though that isn't saying much); sending detectives into a virtual VICAP isn't a terrible premise. The end result is a disappointment, though, partly because of the acting. Given the gauzy sketches of characterization they have to work with, the top-line talent is pretty good, except for Crowe, who has ham chunks dribbling down his chin in every one of his scenes. In his defense, that's the part as written, and he's also struggling to register under an unflattering rockabilly coif matted with cheap hairspray — but a little of that glinting-canines shit goes a long way. The lot of it that we get instead seems to go on for weeks, and the day players, oo-fah with the bad looping of even worse phonetic-sounding line readings, and the editing isn't crisp enough to save things. The ending is a just-take-our-word-for-it unearned "fake-out."
Mostly, it's a failure of imagination. I get the sense that a more interesting early draft got overruled with notes on "edgy" graphics and third-act whatever, and it became a conventional action flick that isn't particularly good at the conventions in the first place.
The Backstory: Fichtner is playing a gelid, David-Byrne-suited sleaze with bad hair, which I can hang with, but he's in the movie for maybe six minutes total. Director Brett Leonard (who is in fact also responsible for The Lawnmower Man, as well as…not much else of note; go figure) does make up for the lack of Fichtie scenes somewhat with a nice ass shot of Crowe, but the real fox here is Denzel, who rocks the jailhouse dreads and tight prison togs.
The Embarrassment Level: I'm more embarrassed for the graphic-design department than I am for myself, but o holy shite is it a bad movie. 5.
Tags: bad screenplay no biscuit Brett Leonard Costas Mandylor Denzel Washington Hey It's That Guy! Kaley Cuoco Kelly Lynch Kevin J. O'Connor Louise Fletcher mistakes were made Russell Crowe that special breed of '90s foolishness The Crushed Film Festival Traci Lords William Fichtner William Forsythe