Push (2009) – Film Review

PushDespite the presence of movie stars Chris Evans (SUNSHINE), Dakota Fanning (CORALINE), and Djimon Hounsou (CONSTANTINE), this would be sci-fi action-thriller feels like a failed television pilot that introduces the back story, sets up the premise, and leaves the story wide open for future installments. Perhaps the distributor was hoping for a franchise, but after the weak box office response the only sequels – if any – are likely to be direct-to-video.
The basic idea has potential for a good popcorn movie. The world is full of people with different powers: some can see the future; others move objects; some can even implant thoughts in other people minds (the “push” of the title). Unfortunately,  the ill-focused screenplay trips itself up on the tangle of its own plot threads. We first see Nick Grant, as a child, escaping as his psychic father is killed by agents led by Henry Carver (Hounsou). Narration over the credits informs us that the Division (an vaguely-defined group that appears to be international in scope but ultimately turns out to be run by the U.S. government) has been experimenting on psychics, injecting them with a serum to increase their power; only problem is, test subjects never survives the injection. As if this were not back story enough, over a decade later, Nick (now played by Evans) is hiding out in Hong Kong, where he is contacted by Cassie Holmes (Fanning), who has another back story: her mother is being held by the Division, and Cassie’ needs Nick’s help to find a woman who knows the secret location of a Hitchcockian MacGuffn that will, somehow or other, secure the release Cassie’s mother. But that’s still not enough: the mystery woman, Kira Hudson (Camilla Belle), who turns out to be not only the sole survivor of the power-enhancing experiments but also Nick’s old girlfriend.
About this time you realize that the plotting is not intricate but convoluted, and true to form the rest of the script works on the same level, just throwing in whatever it takes to get from one scene to the next. There are double crosses and surprise revelations; complicating matters further, there is always the question of whether the plot developments are “real” or merely the result of a psychic “push.” None of these developments zing the audience as they should, because the whole story devolves into such a mess that it’s hard to care what is happening. *
There is a reasonable attempt at working out a clever way for our heroes to stay one step ahead of a psychic predict their future moves by reading their intentions. (It involves Nick writing instructions that the others do not read until the last minute, Nick in the meantime having his memory wiped clean, so that no one, not even he, knows what their intentions are.) However, by the end, at least one major supporting character gets lost in the shuffle, her role in this intricately organized plan all but forgotten.
Among the other pleasant absurdities is the idea that for decades the Division – in the hope of creating super-soldiers – has been taking powerful psychics and killing them with their attempts to make them even more powerful – instead of, you know, training them to use the powers they do have. Underlining the absurdity, Kira’s enhanced powers never seem much if any greater than that of the other psychics we see throughout the film.
The script offers up several clever action set-pieces that should have been more than enough to outweigh the dramatic shortcomings, but director Paul McGuigan fails to maximize their impact. For example, Nick and another telekinetic engage in a shoot-out that consists of each man levitating a gun in order to shoot around corners without exposing himself to return fire. For some reason, a later rematch between the two devolves into a fist-fight; the special effects do a good job of conveying that the punches are enhanced by telekinetic force, but we understand why they would go mano-a-mano instead of psychically hurling objects at each other.
Perhaps as a result of the script’s deficiencies, none of the stars do their best work. Fanning’s character is particularly annoying exmaple fo the know-it-all youngster who is supposed to be endearing because of – not in spite of – her bratty attitude. Or perhaps the problem was a low budget and a short schedule; the unrefined performances suggest that they we are seeing filmed rehearsals.
On the plus side, Xiao Lu Lu makes a memorable evil bitch psychic girl – sort of Cassie’s opposite number. Clifford Curtis (who co-starred with Evans in SUNSHINE) lends solid support. And Ming-Na (STREET FIGHTER) makes you wish the filmmakers had not forgotten what to do with her character.
The dingy photography makes the film look cheap, in spite of the colorful Hong Kong locations. Relatively minimal special effects are not bad but not particularly memorable, either. Overall, the film has the feel of a rough draft – or better yet, a demo version for something that could be much better with a lot more production value and polish.

Camilla Belle as Kira
Camilla Belle as Kira

*(SPOILER) And why should we care, when the filmmakers obviously didn’t? At one point Carver convinces Kira that she is actually on his side; she just does’t remember because the experimental drugs messed up her memory. The film is vague about whether Carver is telling the truth, but either way, Kira has no qualms about joining Carver for some wholesale slaughter near the climax, even standing by while Nick apparently kills himself. Yet by the end we are supposed to overlook this as if it were nothing more than a slight indiscretion.
PUSH (2009). Directed by Paul McGuigan, Written by David Bourla. Cast: Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Camille Belle, Djimon Hounsou, Scott Michael Campbell, Neil Jackson, Hal Yamanouchi, Xiao Lu Li, Ming-Na.

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