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While American citizens continue to lose their minds over the microscopic possibility of being killed by Islamic extremists, reports keep coming out that white supremacist-led domestic terrorist attacks are on the rise. Imperium, a solid undercover cop thriller that tackles the important and delicate subject of the white supremacy danger with depth and maturity, was written and shot before this election season pulled the racism and bigotry that's embraced by white supremacists into the mainstream, but the timing of its release couldn't be more perfect.
There's a lot of talk recently about being open to dissenting views when it comes to racist and extremist language, yet Imperium shows that such language can easily plant the seeds of hate while more than likely resulting in senseless violence and terrorism. The film cleverly opens with a quote about the power of words, from someone who definitely knew how to use that power. It ends by reminding us that while words can turn a person into towards evil, they can also bring them back.
The story is about an introverted FBI agent named Nate (Daniel Radcliffe with a dubious American accent) who goes undercover amongst Washington DC-based white supremacy groups in order find out if a bunch of recently stolen chemicals will be used for a terrorist attack. Most of the team thinks the attack will take place through an Islamic extremist group, but Angela (Toni Collette with her usual pitch perfect American accent), a headstrong agent, thinks that the problem might be domestic terrorism related. She thinks that the reserved and isolated Nate will be a perfect plant, since most white supremacists are frustrated loners like him to begin with. As Nate struggles to blend in with the various white supremacist groups, gradually chipping away at his soul as he's asked to be violent towards innocent people of color, he starts to realize that this virus goes deeper than he thought.
One of the narrative elements that separate Imperium from other films about white supremacy is in the way it shows supremacists not only as heavy-metal loving, tattoo-covered young delinquents, but as a movement filled with engineers, nurses, and other normal-looking people who live amongst us, who own picket-fence houses and have adorable children. A scene where Nate visits a backyard barbeque thrown by supremacist Gerry (Sam Trammell) is brightly lit, serene and calm. Only the swastika frosting on the cupcakes give away the fact that there's something sinister going on under this "lovely" gathering. With his first feature, director Daniel Ragussis shows a deft touch in making his case that this threat is not always obvious and out in the open, that racism festers everywhere, even in places and people you'd never think twice about. Also, a dig at how phony ultra right wing radio personalities can be when push comes to shove is very much appreciated.
On the plot side, we get a fairly predictable undercover cop thriller structure, with some obvious dead ends that Nate comes across before miraculously landing on the true culprits, whose identities the audience is likely to predict far before Nate does. Yep, the film follows the Law & Order formula when it comes to unraveling the mystery behind the suspects. That being said, Ragussis and his crew create a solidly paced story that sticks to its themes, enough to forgive most of the clichés of the plot.
As mentioned above, Imperium doesn't only take place in seedy and gritty locations, but shows how these organizations can flourish right under our noses. The 1080p transfer almost perfectly captures the various looks of the film, from grainy underground facilities to bright and colorful locations, without any discernible video noise.
Even though it's a thriller, Imperium is heavily dialogue based, with occasional and brisk scenes of heightened tension. There's an admirable resistance here towards superfluous action, even the climactic fight scene is over in a manner of seconds. This adds to the realism of the project, but leaves the DTS-HD 5.1 track with a fairly front-channel heavy and subtle mix. However, the mix is handled really well and the dialogue is heard clearly.
Commentary by Daniel Ragussis and Michael German: This is a very interesting commentary, since it involves input by German, whose experiences shaped the movie's screenplay. So we get a two for one, information about the production, and insight into real-life domestic terrorism investigations.
Making Imperium: A fairly typical EPK that's also informative, thanks to its 20-minute runtime.
Living Undercover: A very short EPK about undercover work.
Cast and Crew Interviews: Almost two hours of interviews with the cast and crew. A lot of the information can be found in the shorter EPK.
We also get a Trailer.
Even though it doesn't rewrite the rules and the structure of the undercover cop thriller, Imperium is a solid genre effort that deals with a very relevant theme in a levelheaded and perceptive way.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com