June 2024

Virtuosity (1995)

DIRECTOR: Brett Leonard

CAST: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Kelly Lynch, William Forsythe, William Fichtner, Louise Fletcher, Stephen Spinella, Kevin J. O’Connor


Virtuosity, from director Brett Leonard (playing in virtual reality for the second time after 1992’s The Lawnmower Man) and screenwriter Eric Bernt, is another in the mid-90s fad of “high-tech” thrillers, following Sneakers and The Net, and like the latter Sandra Bullock vehicle, it fails to offer up anything very original or creative, using a “futuristic” premise for a cheesy thriller long on generic action sequences and bad action movie dialogue and deficient on intelligence or thrills.

In “the not too distant future”, I guess, former hero cop Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) is currently experiencing the other side of the law as a prisoner after accidentally blowing away a few innocent bystanders on a vengeful rampage against the man who murdered his family, but he’s allowed to participate in an experimental project where he has virtual reality missions and battles against Sid 6.7 (a gleefully scenery-chewing Russell Crowe), a vicious and intelligent computer program designed to test cops in training exercises. As should come as a surprise to no one, Sid finds a way (via some silly movie pseudo-science) to escape the confines of virtual reality and run amok in the real world. Barnes, because he has experience fighting Sid, gets a shot at redemption: if he can take down Sid, his record will be cleared.

Virtuosity opens with a somewhat nifty action prologue featuring Barnes’ latest mission against Sid. We don’t know right away that we’re in a computer simulation, but there’s hints that something is “off”; the sky ripples like a fluctuating program, and everyone except Barnes is dressed in identical gray business suits and walking like zombies. Alas, it’s not long before the potentially intriguing VR premise turns out to be little more than shallow window dressing for a generic action flick with little creativity to be found, where our cliched down-and-out hero cop gets his cliched shot at redemption, accompanied by a cliched attractive female sidekick (Kelly Lynch’s criminal psychiatrist Dr. Carter, who exists to rattle off some exposition and eventually be a damsel in distress). Apart from Russell Crowe, who gets a few good one-liners (as well as a few dumb ones), the dialogue inhabits that abysmal realm populated by a combination of cheesy one-liners and thuddingly on-the-nose exposition. As is often the case in hokey sci-fi thrillers, there’s plenty of pseudo-science nonsense about Sid being a “nanotech synthetic organism” and computer chips replicating themselves using the raw material of silicon (I don’t think that’s a thing). Sid is so cartoonishly over-the-top (justifiable in a sense, I suppose, since he’s a computer program literally designed to be a supervillain) that he could have blown straight in from the latest Batman movie, and indeed his playful tormenting of Barnes at times recalls the dynamic between Batman and The Joker (at one point, he comes to Barnes’ unlikely rescue and sets him free from a police van, because he’d be bored without him to play with), and as if afraid we won’t be engaged without it, the script devises a way to Make Things Personal. Sid, you see, is an amalgamation of notorious criminals and serial killers (Hitler, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and Jack the Ripper are all name-dropped, though the movie doesn’t do anything relevant with this), including the man who murdered Barnes’ family, thus manufacturing a contrived “personal grudge” dynamic. There’s lots of generic running around and chases and shootouts and a child-in-danger scenario, none of which is particularly inventive or memorable, and there’s a climax where the hero must race against time and rescue the female sidekick in a fistfight on a rooftop. What’s more telling of the filmmakers’ lack of imagination then the fact that, after establishing a virtual reality premise, it all comes down to….a fistfight on a rooftop?

Despite slumming in a disposable B-level action flick far below his usual level, Denzel Washington injects the proceedings with a needed dose of seriousness and gravitas and imbues Barnes with about as much conviction as can be expected. However, his “straight man” performance risks being overshadowed by Russell Crowe (a far cry from his previous appearance earlier this year in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, one of his first US roles), who goes all-out as the villain in an over-the-top “wild and crazy guy” performance befitting a Batman villain. He struts around in gaudy suits, to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive”, no less, (“I’m beautiful” he gushes after seeing himself in a mirror in the real world for the first time), he kills people and wreaks mayhem willy nilly, and at one point he holds a crowd of club-goers hostage and orders them to scream while conducting them like an orchestra, but while Crowe’s over-the-top exuberance is enjoyable for a while, eventually it starts to get a little old. Kelly Lynch is blandness personified; at no point in time do we ever care what happens to her character, even when she fulfills her obligatory duty as the climactic damsel in distress dangling from a high place. At least we’re spared a romance between she and Barnes (credit for dodging at least one cliche belongs to Denzel Washington, who tweaked much of the script and dialogue, including removing a romantic subplot). In the supporting cast, familiar supporting character actor types like William Forsythe, William Fichtner, and Louise Fletcher (a long way from her Oscar-winning role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) do what the “bigwigs” always do in these silly thrillers: stand around staring at monitors looking serious and concerned and swap some fairly silly exposition and some really silly dialogue (“He’s evolving!” Fichtner overdramatically exclaims at one point, “My God! He’s evolving!”). Kevin J. O’Connor is the hapless employee who’s used as a plot device to set Sid free (and promptly disposed of once he fulfills his plot purpose), and Stephen Spinella as Sid’s weaselly and obsessed designer smacks of a homophobic gay caricature (Spinella himself is gay, and while the character isn’t explicitly stated as such, it’s strongly implied) of the sort of gay-coded villainous or otherwise derogatory character who often popped up in eighties and nineties thrillers. The movie also teases a homoerotic vibe in Sid’s fixation with Barnes; “you’re the only man on my dance card”, he quips at one point.

There’s something wearisome and depressing about seeing sci-fi and technological ideas used as no more than shallow window dressing for generic action flicks by filmmakers who want to give a superficial appearance of making “high-tech thrillers”, but lack the imagination or creativity to do anything with them. Denzel Washington’s game attempt at giving a serious performance and Russell Crowe’s scenery-chewing at least make the proceedings watchable, but they don’t get much to work with in a dreary, by-the-numbers flick that doesn’t offer much more than a disposable diversion.

* * 1/2