It's clear to me that Dakota Fanning is the real deal. Free of any remaining child-actor stigma, I found myself strangely drawn to her in Push, Paul McGuigan's sporadically-effective sci-fi/action/superhero hybrid. She's got whatever it is that movie stars need: the right combination of mystery, talent and charisma that can carry a movie. Too bad Push is a bit of a lark; it's sound and fury, signifying a sequel. The movie wears its desire to start a franchise on its sleeve in a way that's inherently unsatisfying, and while Dakota Fanning may be popping up in any number of projects in 2010, I doubt any of them are going to be Push 2.
In the world of the film, there are three major types of special abilities (well, there are more, but elaboration is rare). Movers can move things with their mind, Seers see the future, and Pushers can get inside your mind and make you believe whatever they want. Not surprisingly, these types correspond to the three main characters characters. Nick (Chris Evans) is the Mover, Cassie (Fanning) is the Seer, and Kira (Camilla Belle) is the Pusher. They're being tracked by Division, led by Agent Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), who wants the syringe Kira stole while escaping from Division's science lab. Division is an organization which exists to turn these people into weapons, and they've been injecting gunk meant to enhance the powers into everyone they can pick up. The downside is, it's fatal.
These days, everybody's trying to birth a franchise, and Push is no exception. Plot threads are purposefully left hanging, ideas feel underdeveloped, and various possibilities are skimmed over, leaving a movie that basically just has holes in it, and watching it is like eating a Hot Pocket with nothing but sauce inside. On top of that, the script is its own brand of frustrating, bordering on both annoying and dopey but never quite tipping over, leaving the audience to simply wish at all times that it was better. I wasn't bored by Push, but I was never sucked in either.
Director Paul McGuigan surprised me with his last feature Lucky Number Slevin, which took a familiar set of tropes and goosed some life into them with snappy writing and sharp performances. Sadly, lightning does not strike twice, and only spurts of the action and mayhem on display are particularly entertaining. McGuigan unfortunately succumbs to the modern desire to overcut everything, tossing some used Tony Scott-style burned-out flashbacks and a dash of shaky-cam in for good measure. Even when the movie looks nice, François Séguin's colorful production design or DP Peter Sova probably played as much a role in it as McGuigan. The 111-minute runtime could also lose a little fat -- you could probably trim out ten minutes without losing a single scene.
It pays to know what kind of movie you're making, and only Fanning gets it right. While she takes the film on exactly the right terms, her co-stars are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Camilla Belle often feels flat and somewhat maudlin, like she's taking the concept very seriously, while Evans is almost too aware he's making a goofy movie, with some audience-pandering smarminess showing around the edges. Their romance is an even bigger miscalculation: Belle and Evans have no chemistry whatsoever. Luckily, we have Fanning to fall back on, who has a deadpan charisma without hitting the audience over the head with the movie's complicated mythos. Among the rest of the cast, it's nice to see Evans' Sunshine co-star Cliff Curtis pop up as a man who can transform objects, and I liked seeing Nate Mooney, one of the terrible McPoyle brothers on "It's Always Sunny in Phiadelphia", in a far less lecherous role. As the villain, Hounsou is barely there, and he fails to be as menacing as he should be when he decides to appear (with his mostly silent Alan Tudyk/Paul Bettany clone Neil Jackson in tow).
By chopping out select bits for the sequel, McGuigan and co. leave an already silly movie spread too thin, hurting both the film that exists and the one they're hoping to make next. Watching Push turns the audience into the monkey on the exercise bike with the banana dangling in front of it: the filmmakers promise you the banana, but only if we pedal Push to box office success. Fans of Dakota Fanning should be fairly satisfied, but everyone else can get a glimpse of a future where they stay home, and save their money.
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