Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More Forgotten Denzel Washington: Virtuosity (1995)

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!


  1. I love Brainscan, I remember enjoying it quite a lot, too bad it never took off, that villain could have easily become the next Freddy.

    Good of you to notice that boom of films about virtual reality, Johnny Mnemonic is underrated in my opinion, I dig it. Strange Days in my opinion is one of the best of all, along with ExisteZ.

    Another one to mention would be Brainstorm, the one that stars Christopher Walken, a pretty decent flick, as well as Cronenberg's Videodrome.

    Virtuosity is pretty cool, Leonard plays with similar themes then the ones seen in Lawnmower Man. I enjoy Lawnmower man, but some of it's effects work now seems too crude. Still, I managed to enjoy Lawnmower Man anyways, cant say the same for it's sequel Lawnmower Man 2: Job's War.

  2. Yeah, there's some quite similar themes. Lawnmower Man was about a man finally becoming one with cyberspace and Virtuosity is the exact opposite, a construct coming out of cyberspace into the real world.

    I find the virtual reality boom fascinating because it was built entirely on fiction. All these movies acted like VR was just around the corner but it's still hasn't arrived.

    I remember quite liking Strange Days but it's been a while since I last saw it. Haven't seen Brainstorm, I'll try and track that down.

    Lawnmower Man 2 was really bad. I hated the way they retconned Jobe as having survived the end of the first film when 1) we clearly see his withered dead body and 2) the film ends with him inside cyberspace making all the phones in the world ring. What a cop out!

  3. It's interesting that all these movies about virtual reality came out around the same time. I'd even add Hackers to the list even though its more about computers and its "high tech" is pretty silly today. I actually haven't seen The Lawnmower Man or Strange Days yet and had not even heard of Brainscan or Expect No Mercy before. Eventually I want to do a post on the four late 90s reality bending movies (Dark City, The Matrix, Existenz, The 13th Floor) but haven't had the time as I would like to re-watch them all first.

    As for Virtuosity, its been awhile since I've seen the movie but I remember liking it alright despite the ridiculous premise. Washington and Crowe definitely made it watchable. Johnny Mnemonic is probably worse on a technical level but I found that movie more memorable than Virtuosity.

  4. Hackers is another enormous guilty pleasure for me. I'll probably be putting a post for that up soon.

    Ha! Yeah, Expect No Mercy was me really scrapping the bottom of the barrel. It was a cheap DTV action film with Billy Blanks (though strangely they did make an accompanying video game!)

    A post on Dark City, Matrix, Existenz, 13th Floor sounds great, can't wait to read that. Loads of interesting parallels - the Matrix even shot on a couple of Dark City's sets in order to save budget!

    You're right Johnny Mnemonic, though a weaker movie than Virtuosity, did have some better visuals which probably made it more memorable. That movie was a real missed opportunity.

  5. Brainstorm is pretty cool, it plays with some of the same concepts seen in Strange Days, of getting lost in cyberspace adn not wanting to come back...but in reality I would compare it more to Altered States in terms of mood and because it gets trippy, surreal and existential. Plus it's got Christopher Walken in it! Douglas Trumbull directed it, he's one of the guys responsible for the fx work in 2001: a Space Oddysey and he also directed a sci-fi from the 70s called Silent Running, which some like, but I found boring.

  6. I haven't seen this one since it was in theaters. I didn't like it then, but a lot of those 90's VR flicks sorta work well as nostalgia now. I'm sure I need to give it another chance. Crowe was excellent. Too bad he's all famous now. He'll probably never star in this kind of nonsense again.

  7. Franco: Now you've mentioned Douglas Trumbull, yes I have heard of Brainstorm. Didn't realise it was about VR. I'll check it out (if only to see his effects).

    Mitch: Yeah, this film does work well as nostalgia. Even though its set in the future everything about it reeks of 1995. Crowe is great fun in this. I'm thinking now that his leading man status is on the rocks he'll consider some more trashy roles like this again.

  8. What ever happened to Leonard? I remember him being at the forefront of all this virtual reality stuff back in the 90's, but haven't seen his name in forever. I remember his first film though, The Dead Pitt, but I don't remember if I liked it or not. But Virtuosity was a lot of fun, and I think that has a lot to do with two respected actors like Washington and Crowe. They really raised this a few levels above average because this film could have easily gone direct to video.

    I'm surprised that Leonard didn't keep pushing the boundaries of VR and keep making more films like that. You know, how James Cameron keeps pushing the boundaries of digital effects and 3D, I expected Leonard to have done the same with effects and virtual reality and all that back in the 90's but it just seemed like after Virtuosity, he gave up on the genre.

    Great review man. I'll definitely need to see this one again.

  9. I think Leonard fell on hard times after this film flopped. Had he had the same career success as Cameron I'm sure he would have kept pushing his obvious love of virtual reality.

    The last two flicks of his I saw were:- Man-Thing (2005) a terribly-titled comic book horror film apparently based on a Marvel Comics character (who seems very similar to DC's Swamp Thing). It wasn't horrendous and had a couple of neat effects at the end. And he also directed Highlander: The Source (2007), the infamous fifth and final entry in the series which was somehow far WORSE than Highlander 2: The Quickening! (see earlier blog entry

    Yeah, it's really the work of Crowe and Washington that raise this flick up. Speaking of which I'm sure Washington owes us another trashy flick in the next year or so. He seems to do one about every 5 years.

  10. I remember seeing The Dead Pit, it had a cool looking crazy scientist, but the film itself was so freaking cheesy, it made no sense whatsoever at times. Heres a link to my review for Dead Pit in case you're interested:

    Highlander 5 was inexcusably bad. I mean atrocious...I couldnt bare it. Watching it was torture.

  11. Excellent review, buddy! I love Virtuosity. One of my personal favorites...watched it at least 10 times and i have the soundtrack and novel! Haha.

    "Let me break out the crowd-pleaser..."

  12. Thanks Ty. Yeah, it's a very easy, brain-switched-off movie. Just looked up the soundtrack - might get it, I quite like my 90s electro.

    Wow, the novelisation. God, do they still make those!

  13. Gotta love the 90s techno! It has the Traci Lords track from the club scene.

    The novelization was pretty funny too.