Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Vantage Point, released earlier this year, has virtually no cultural cache. It appears to be the kind of empty thriller that's looking to make a quick buck without making too many waves—the trailers were exciting enough that the movie opened at number one, but it quickly disappeared from theaters. It's got a 35 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which for our purposes is probably worse than, say, a 5 or a 10. It means the movie is just okay, not shockingly bad or surprisingly good. Metacritic has it at a similar 40/100, and our own Scott Tobias called it "craven, shallow… and gimmicky" on the way to giving it a C-. (And that isn't me rearranging his words, film-studio-style, to make it sound better.)
Curiosity factor: But still, my brain yearns for political thrillers, especially about assassinations. Even a bad assassination movie (the Bruce Willis remake of Day Of The Jackal, for example) pretty much always has enough exciting moments to make it worth watching. (Wasn't that Jack Black in Jackal selling Willis the gigantic machine gun?) I'm rarely tempted to watch even the most accessible, supposedly good rom-com (never seen Jerry Maguire, and I really like Cameron Crowe), but I will watch the most half-assed political thriller or decent-looking cop movie. (Look for 88 Minutes in an upcoming I Watched This On Purpose.) Also, the cast in Vantage Point looked pretty decent. Forest Whitaker, that hunky Matthew Fox from Lost, Dennis Quaid, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt… And then there's the movie's "twist"—right there in the title—that we're going to see this assassination from various points of view. (Like Rashomon, only with greater box-office potential.) Oh, and I can't end this paragraph without mentioning Nick Of Time, the 1995 Johnny Depp/Christopher Walken flick that takes place in "real time." It's movies like that—shallow and gimmicky in all the right ways—that make me think Vantage Point has a chance.
The viewing experience: Color me pleasantly surprised. Vantage Point has little of the ridiculousness you might expect from a Hollywood thriller—it's super-lean, full of nonstop action, and actually twisty enough (without too many ridiculous coincidences) that it kept me guessing, or at least interested.
So, to the vantage points. We first see the events unfold from the trailer of a mobile newsroom. At the helm is GNN (it's like CNN, get it?) producer Sigourney Weaver, whose presence is barely a blip in the film after the first few minutes. She and her crew are filming an appearance by President William Hurt, who's in Spain to promote a new multi-country alliance that promises to put a "stranglehold" on terror. (That's the way to stop terror, strangle it!) Her various angles, courtesy of a bunch of cameras in the plaza, provide an overview of what's about to happen. And what is that, you ask? The President Of The United States (hereafter referred to as POTUS, both by me and by the rest of the cast) is about to be shot.
Weaver also lets us know that Secret Service agent Dennis Quaid was shot only a year ago while saving the president from assassination. And now Quaid is kind of cracked up, taking pills and generally being nervous. His partner is Matthew Fox, who (mild spoiler, but not really) clearly has something up his sleeve. Our next vantage point is theirs, as they prepare the president for his trip to the plaza. Oh, and each time we change vantage points, there's a little cliffhanger, and the film rewinds quickly. It's actually pretty effective, in a 24 kind of way. (You could say that about this whole movie—it's very 24.) So the president is shot. It looks bad. We know that much. Quaid and Fox have this stupid exchange: "This never should have happened." "Except that it did, on our watch."
Things quickly get sorta complicated—again, in a 24 way, not in a what-the-fuck-is-going-on way—as the vantage point skips to a Spanish cop who's there to protect the mayor. Or so we think. He quickly touches base with two mysterious Spaniards, but we don't know—yet—what they're up to.
Did I forget to mention the explosion? It's kinda key… Not only is the president shot, but the podium on which he was shot explodes about five minutes later. It's actually a terrific device to keep the action moving and keep things tense. And I found myself literally on the edge of my seat, biting my nails a bit—a good sign for this type of movie.
Forest Whitaker eventually shows up as a tourist who happens to be at every important event in the film with his video camera—he's like Forrest Gump meets Abraham Zapruder. He gets in some unnecessary backstory (he's in Europe alone, estranged from his family) before his camera becomes important (sort of) to figuring out this convoluted mess. Whitaker is typically wide-eyed and weird here, and a bit of a scenery-chewer. But like everybody else, he isn't the star. There really is no star, with the possible exception of Quaid, who gets a little more screen time.
Okay, here comes a spoiler-filled twist that might make you think you'll hate this movie. It turns out that the president who was shot was actually a double. (They gloss this ridiculousness over by saying, "Reagan used doubles all the time.") The terrorists know this, too, and the chief terrorist even scoffs at America for using the double: "That's the beauty of American arrogance. They always think they're one step ahead of everybody else." The double only makes the plot twistier, though, as we learn about the terrorist plan to kidnap the president at his hotel—which involves another explosion or two.
Before the prez is kidnapped, we learn that he's a pretty righteous dude. Even though his aide is telling him to call in a retaliatory airstrike (to a non-assassination that just happened two minutes ago?), he keeps chill and plans to stay in the country for the summit. That's actually a huge strength for Vantage Point—it bothers very little with character development and not at all with B-stories. Each person has just enough screen time to put forward the strength of their character, and that's all viewers need to know.
That goes double for the terrorists. There's no explanation of why they're doing what they're doing, and there's no nefarious mastermind tapping the tips of his fingers together, Mr. Burns style. They're focused on doing their job, and that job includes using a cell phone as a remote-control targeting device for a kick-ass machine gun. And shooting the president who isn't actually the president. But still, kick-ass remote-control machine gun. (Which actually seems vaguely plausible, doesn't it?)
Where does this all lead? Not to some court case or drawn-out explanation of everybody's motivations or even to a twisty double cross. It leads to a simple car chase, well-shot (and quite Bourne-ish), long, loud, and where we know exactly who the good guy and who the bad guy is. It's refreshing, in its way.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? One of Vantage Point's greatest strengths is that it wastes almost no time at all, and it does so on purpose (much the way I watched it). At a lean 85 minutes, there's very little time to get bored or pick apart giant leaps of logic and coincidence. If I were an extreme editor, I might've shaved off an entire character, but then we might not even be at feature length. As it stands, I'd say a solid 80 minutes wasn't a waste of my time, giving Vantage Point a solid 94 percent. In real-world terms, that's an A!