Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Time, Space, And Murder Are About To Collide

Directed by Louis Morneau, one of the better DTV filmmakers out there, 1997's RETROACTIVE is an imaginative time-travel rift that frustratingly veers wildly back and forth between clever and stupid. Of course, time-travel stories always run the risk of breaking its own rules in favor of moving the story along; even the best time-travel movies, such as THE TERMINATOR and BACK TO THE FUTURE, have niggling plot threads hanging loose at story’s end. However, those films are so witty, so entertaining that we’re willing to overlook their flaws. RETROACTIVE isn’t nearly as good, but its energetic action scenes and occasional flashes of brilliance make it worth watching, frustrations aside.

Karen (Aussie Kylie Travis, mostly hiding her accent), a police psychologist from Chicago, is stranded in the Texas desert after her car breaks down. She hitches a ride with Frank (James Belushi), a loudmouthed hood with Elvis sideburns, and his mousy wife Rayanne (Skinemax queen Shannon Whirry, making a strong case for respectability)—a decision Karen quickly regrets when Frank kills Rayanne and blows up a gas station. On the run for her life, Karen finds temporary refuge at a mysterious government installation, where scientist Brian (Frank Whaley) is alone putting the final touches on his time machine. She uses it to go back 20 minutes, hoping to prevent Frank’s temper outburst and its violent domino effect on everyone he meets.

There’s much more to the story than that—suffice to say that Karen’s attempt to retroactively patch things up goes awry—and most of the fun comes in anticipating the directions in which Karen manipulates the plot. The problem is that Morneau and his three screenwriters spent so much time dreaming up plot twists and chases that they’re ultimately wasted on a scenario that’s not really very riveting. In THE TERMINATOR, the hero goes back in time to prevent the destruction of humanity at the hands of evil robots. Here, Karen’s quest is to prevent an ignorant redneck with a gun from shooting a few people. The filmmakers are as sincere, I believe, as their heroine, but the stakes aren’t high enough to become fully invested in her plight.

Morneau and Belushi enjoyed themselves enough to reunite on another DTV action movie, MADE MEN, which is much better. Belushi is perfectly cast, but stuck with a character that isn’t too interesting. He seems to know it, and fills his performance with enough loutish bluster in an effort to create someone who isn’t on the page. Travis and Whaley are fine; I appreciated that Karen is smart enough to figure out what has happened to her long before characters in dumber movies would have. Sure, it’s hard to believe you’ve gone backwards in time, but when it quickly occurs to her there can be no other explanation, she takes advantage of her foreknowledge to prevent senseless deaths.

RETROACTIVE deserved a bigger audience than it received. Orion’s financial woes kept it out of theaters, and its unappealing box art probably turned away many VHS and DVD renters who may find its energetic stunts, striking photography, and entertaining story twists up their alley.

1 comment:

Max Allan Collins said...

I really like this movie, and when anyone (understandably) slags on Belushi because of his sitcom, I think back to this strong villain role.

I'm a sucker for time travel stuff, and this is an underrated one.