Okay, back to the reviews and this week we've got another semi-forgotten Denzel Washington flick, Virtuosity. Now the early 90s were something of a boom time for virtual reality. Even though the actual technology was just theory and still light years away it didn't stop multiple screenwriters putting the concept in their scripts. You had Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days selling bootleg first person experiences, Billy Blanks trying to take down the Virtual Arts Academy in Expect No Mercy, Eddie Furlong playing the addictive killer video game in Brainscan and Keanu Reeves making his first attempt at cyberpunk with Johnny Mnemonic. Despite many of these early entries being quite ropey they laid a lot of the ground work for vastly superior VR films that came later in the decade such as Existenz and The Matrix. Virtuosity came slap back in the middle of this boom (in 1995) and although it's not a visionary film, it is a good 90 minutes of fun.
The film sees a young Russell Crowe play Sid 6.7, a virtual reality construct created by a scientist in order to train police officers. Sid has been made up of the most twisted criminal minds from history in order to give rookie officers a chance to test their metal in a safe virtual reality environment. However, the same scientist has also been working on a silicon liquid that makes virtual reality character become real and... yeah, you've got it, Sid manages to trick the scientist and make himself a real person so that he can commit crimes in the real world. Denzel Washington plays Parker Barnes, a disgraced cop who has been imprisoned for accidentally killed a news reporter and her cameraman. Much like Demolition Man, Barnes is released from prison so that he can capture Sid. And to make things just that extra bit personal part of Sid's personality make-up is the mad bomber who killed his wife!
The first thing to note is that this is directed by Brett Leonard who is no stranger to virtual reality films. He also directed the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, where Pierce Brosnan played a scientist who used virtual reality to make a mentally retarded gardener become super smart (still not entirely sure how that worked!). I kind of liked The Lawnmower Man despite its somewhat cheesy story and acting (and completely idiotic decision to slap Stephen King's name on the cover even though it didn't even remotely resemble his short story). Leonard is quite a hyperactive director who doesn't do subtle. I tend to put him in the same bracket as Russell Mulcahy and Paul WS Anderson as makers of dependably energetic but dumb action movies. His direction of Virtuosity is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the plus side, it's got a good pace and decent set pieces but on the down side, it's overly colourful and his concepts of futuristic design are tepid rather than revolutionary.
Once again, much like Ricochet, Washington really excels in his role as Parker Barnes, giving a waaaay above average performance. One particularly bit sticks out as completely badass, where he's trying to save his wife from a mad bomber and he gets his entire right arm blown off... and then continues to carry on firing his gun with his left hand. It's also interesting to see Crowe (another Oscar winner) act in such a lurid action movie. He really camps it up as Sid 6.7 but given that he's meant to be playing a child-like computer construct I guess it makes sense. The problem is that even though Crowe comes off as sadistic and evil he never comes off as scary or intimidating which is odd because he displayed those characteristics very well when he played neo nazi skinhead Hando in Romper Stomper not three years earlier. Still he and Washington make a good antagonist/protagonist double act and play off each other well. Hey, even Ridley Scott agrees. He got them back together for American Gangster ten years later.
The film's script by Eric Bernt starts off very shaky. The whole concept of this clear silicon liquid which turns virtual reality characters into real physical people is a tough pill to swallow. I'm usually open to most science fiction concept but this seems like a very silly idea that probably got thought up in five minutes. However, once you've accepted that the film does go to some interesting places. Sid can get shot and wounded but much like the T-1000 he can also repair himself. In this case, he needs glass to replenish his health (get it, because glass is partially silicon). He also makes a great action movie villain because he spends most of the time causing mayhem purely for the fun of it rather than any logical plan. And Barnes has some interesting complexity to him too (I'd like to think Washington insisted on this) rather than being your straight forward action hero. One of the most memorable points is the ending is quite clever concept. Okay it's not 'genius' clever but it was good idea that gave the film a neat arc.
In spite of a couple of negative points I've got against the film it still is a lot of fun. Sure it's not as great as The Lawnmower Man for me, but it's not far off (yes, I am saying Lawnmower Man was great, sue me). At the very least you can say it's a good guilty pleasure that doesn't take itself too seriously. One of my favourite sequences has to be where Crowe, fresh out in the real world struts down the street to 'Staying Alive'. Yeah, it's that kind of film. Go find a copy now!