MOVIE – “Retroactive” (1997)
DIRECTOR – Louis Morneau
WRITERS – Michael Hamilton-Wright, Robert Strauss, Phillip Badger
SIX DEGREES OF CAST & CREW
- Director Louis Morneau and writer Michael Hamilton-Wright are fine purporters of crappy sequels to other people’s crappy movies. Examples: Carnosaur 2, The Hitcher 2, Joy Ride 2, The Mangler 2
- Hey zombie fans: The un-named, perpetually-ill-fated Trooper of this movie is played by Sherman Howard, aka “Bub” from “Day of the Dead” (1985)
- Speaking of Sherman, he and Shannon Whirry (“Rayanne” here) both did (separate) episodes of “Seinfeld”
- And hey Roger Corman fans: Shannon Whirry and Guy Boyd were both in 2001′s “Roger Corman Presents Black Scorpion” series
- Cinematographer George Mooradian not only photographed Morneau’s 1999 “Made Men” (also starring James Belushi), but later many many many episodes of Belushi’s sitcom, “According To Jim”
It’s funny, here I am about to review a movie based around time travel, made in 1997. That’s pretty well the top year I wish I could revisit. Actually, no, scratch that. What’s even funnier is that, after I finished watching this James Belushi movie, upon stopping the tape I realized I was suddenly in the middle of an episode of… “ACCORDING TO JIM”.
Well, I thought it was funny. Let’s move on…
So here we’re presented 1997′s “Retroactive”, starring the aforementioned Jim Belushi. Mister James plays Frank, the fast-talkin’ Texas no-goodnik with a penchant for sideburns and techno-contraband. That is to say, Frank gets ahold of some manner of top-secret computer chips, with intent to pass there-along to other ne’erdowells for some easy monies. With his best gal Rayanne (Shannon Whirry) unwillingly at his side, they’re on their way. Also on her way is Karen, played by Kylie Travis of “Models, Inc”… er, fame. She’s a former Chicago police psychologist, fresh off a botched hostage situation, and she means to leave her shamed career and three innocent victims back in the Windy City. Meanwhile, perpetual-wormy-guy Frank Whaley is killing rats and tinkering with a government-funded time machine, and goes by the name of Brian (or, if you’re Kylie Travis, “Brain”, in an unintentionally excellent coincidence of voice acting).
What’s this time machine do, exactly? Well, it’s certainly not some miraculous flying car that lets you take your own mom to the school dance. “Retroactive” keeps things moderately realistic, or at least humble, in terms of its quasi-futuristic technology. The film is essentially set in 1997, so there’s no fancy, speculative mega-computers. Just big, ugly, speculative pretty-good-computers cluttering up a laboratory, and its all about to be shut down anyway, what with Brian not getting anywhere… until now.
Brian’s “retroactive experiment” allows him to send subjects standing on an open-air platform a maximum of twenty minutes into the past. The subject will not physically move back in time, so there’s no future-and-past-selves-in-the-same-time danger and/or hilarity. Your consciousness is merely transported back to your body of twenty minutes ago, but only your consciousness – nobody else remembers the “future” you came from. In an amazingly early plot hole failure, Brian’s only proof of his success with his final experiment is that the videotape log of his experiment somehow not only went back in time, but back into the camera altogether. Ignoring the fact that a video cassette is not a living creature, wouldn’t the tape’s “memory” go back into it’s past self, which past-Brian has when he tries to put the past-tape into the past-camera only to discover the future-tape? Realizing I must sound like an idiot for over-analyzing what isn’t even the first ten minutes of this movie, I will now proceed with a proper review of the rest of the movie, and assure that anybody reading this (Hi, Ron, I’m doing another review!) that the rest of the film is NOT a convoluted mess of straight-to-video bad time travel sci-fi.
Admittedly, the film was straight-to-video. And while it’s not a great movie in general, it is at least interesting with its time travel sci-fi. Conceptually speaking, anyway. Frank and Rayanne (Belushi and Whirry) pick up car-busted Karen (Travis) on the side of an empty Texas road, and it becomes pretty apparent pretty quick just how much of a douchebag Frank is. It’s not much later that Frank goes from douche to dangerous douche with a gun, and things soon escalate to Frank killing Rayanne, and chasing Karen through the desert. They of course end up at Brian’s not-so-secret mountainside government lab, and Karen is successfully let in while Frank is locked out. Before you know it, Karen is accidentally made the first human subject of Brian’s little time machine, and she finds herself right back in backseat of Frank’s cadillac, well aware of what’s soon to happen.
Through the rest of the film is where the film, on a conceptual level, is at its strongest. Predating 2004′s “The Butterfly Effect”, “Retroactive” gives us some gritty reality in regards to the consequences of time travel – sure it’d be fun to go back and kiss that girl you always meant to, or noble to stop Hitler from being Hitler, but you can’t necessarily predict or even guarantee the other results of your actions. The consequences in this film are not only for the worse, but increasingly so; every time Karen tries to right her wrongs, the wrongs get both twisted and compounded, at the expense of more and more innocent lives. The conclusion is of course an attempt at a redemptive happy ending for more than one character, but unsuccessfully so. Without giving too much away, Rayanne is able to reap some level of redemption herself, though bittersweetly. She is freed, yet remains a prisoner. It’s a very strong means of storytelling and characterization, but ends up getting brushed aside as we remember that she’s not the “hero” of the film, which Karen is. Unfortunately while we would assume Karen should be the one able to atone for her past (and she does, in a way), there’s not enough connection to said past for us to feel any emotion for her, and she certainly doesn’t emote as such (more on that later). There’s two other surprise connections later revealed, both involving Frank and other characters, but neither is even remotely explained after being initially revealed.
While Karen’s lost sense of atonement is unfortunate, it does not stand as the only reflection of the film’s theme of retroactivity, nostalgia, and remorse. Frank is a strong example, the way he dresses like he’s still in the 70′s, or abusively forces Rayanne to subject herself to a charade of what was presumably a once-happy relationship. More deeply, we’re later hinted at his unhappy childhood. It wouldn’t have taken much for the writers to imbue similar qualities upon other characters even in subtle ways, but as stated earlier, they couldn’t even bother expounding upon it within the lead Karen.
Speaking of Karen, Kylie Travis is an unfortunate choice for lead actress. She does well enough on a action level, but as an actress… I don’t want to say “flat”, as she does have decent range. She simply doesn’t seem to have any energy behind her performance, though looking at her resume she doesn’t have much experience to begin with. Admittedly her character isn’t given any scenes to allow her to emote upon her tragic past of apparently not-too-long-ago, but it probably would’ve been lost upon Travis anyway. On the other side of the good-versus-evil coin is James Belushi. While he does a well enough job playing an on-edge jerk, he doesn’t seem able to maintain being an on-edge jerk from Texas, as Belushi’s accent regularly slips from Good Ol’ Boy to his native Illinois inflection, particularly when upset and yelling. Arguably some blame could go towards director Louis Morneau, who never seems able to get strongly emotive performances out of any cast member here, apart from “LOUDER”. But, this is intended as an action flick, which he does succeed at giving us, by and large. Sequences are rapt with decent suspense, though one gets the sense that having Belushi shut up for two seconds might allow for more subtle tension.
Other casting choices come off as at least acceptable, though overall performances often suffer from the same sort of subdued displacement inflicting Kylie Travis. Really only Belushi puts any exuberance into his character and delivery. Of any other noticeable mention is the ever-inexplicably-charming M. Emmet Walsh, playing Frank’s gas station co-douchebag Sam. What Walsh projects doesn’t seem appropriate to his character or dialogue, but comes off awkwardly enjoyable just the same. One gets the sense that “Sam” is supposed to be a dirtbag, but Walsh’s everybody’s-grandpa qualities imbue the character with a humanity that in turn sympathizes the viewer enough to think that maybe Sam doesn’t want anything to do with Frank’s destruction of his gas station and shooting of cops.
It’s a fast-moving film, this “Retroactive”, but it knows when to ease up well enough. It maintains a consistent level of gritty, tense atmosphere, which is offset by the consistently bright Texas desert landscape. Colors are bright but not blinding, at times oversaturated into shades of green or yellow, giving a surreal, David Fincher quality. Things like framing and cinematography end up back-seated along with the restrained acting, though the well-edited action keeps you unfocused from these things just the same. You’ll be taken aback by a handful of startlingly unique close-ups, and the shot of Karen in the back of the cadillac, obviously filmed with the camera sitting on the floor, where the front seat should be. The audio is largely nominal, with sub-standard gunshot and explosion sound effects making the action feel ineffectual. A quasi-bluesy, quasi-country soundtrack gives an appropriate attitude to the Texas backdrop and Frank’s rockabilly flair.
All in all, “Retroactive” isn’t wholly bad. It’s a conceptual delight for time travel fans, though delivered fairly flat at times and falling even flatter by the end. But, at least Jean Claude Van Damme isn’t causing past and future versions of Ron Silver to implode in on themselves in a time-space paradox.
RATING – 2.5 mexican radio stations out of 5