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Review: "Total Recall" 

This review originally appeared in my column at Towleroad

It's hard not to feel sympathy for Colin Farrell. His secret movie star weapon is those long, thick unmistakable eyebrows. When he's in distress his brow lifts and pulls them up into a converging point, creating a perfect triangular frame for big brown orbs of boyish angst. "Help me!" is written all over his eyes. That same furrowed brow expression with just minor flickering shifts can also say "Please love me!" and "Aren't I funny?" and "..." His capacity for impish excitement and moral confusion were a perfect match for his best star turn to date in the hitman seriocomedy In Bruges (2008) and it helps the TOTAL RECALL do-over more than it should.

Farrell plays everyman Doug Quaid who doesn't realize he's actually someone else because his memory has been erased. A trip to the fantasy memory banks of "Total Rekall" (a reversal of Eternal Sunshine's "Lacuna Inc" since the company aims to give you false memories rather than take real ones away) upsets his reprogramming and suddenly he's killing soldiers with the trained might of a futuristic Jason Bourne. Returning home his formerly loving wife (Kate Beckinsale) tries to kill him.

Quaid realizes he's completely lost in a false life with no memory of the real one. Cut to: plentiful moments of Farrell Furrowing!

But you shouldn't have time to think about the magic and mystery of physiognomy while you're watching an action movie. If you do your mind wanders and questions come cascading in like...

"When did Kate Beckinsale's Hair becomes self-aware like SkyNet?" When?!?

 ... her locks are practically prehensile, whisking about expressively and frantically like they're after their own Oscar since the woman attached has long abandoned serious acting.

"Is the perpetually open mouthed Jessica Beal an actress or a CGI sex doll fantasy for adolescent boys and Justin Timberlake?"

"Why does Colin Farrell keeping saying 'Yes' indiscriminately to 80s remakes?"

"Is Chris Nolan's Batman series responsible for the humorlessness of the current action crop or is self-seriousness a front for Hollywood - a way to feel important and mature without making any serious effort or having anything to say?" But I digress. No more questions.

Total Recall was directed by Len Wiseman, the man behind the undead Underworld series which also stars both his superhot wife Kate Beckinsale and the creepily gaunt mask of Bill Nighy in "dangerous person" mode. Nighy plays a "terrorist" leader though "terrorist" is a matter of semantics since the heroes in Total Recall are the rebel forces, out to free "The Colony" (Future Post-Apocalypse Australia) from enslavement by "The United Federation of Britain" (Future Post-Apocalypse UK). There is so much background plot the film is forced to begin with a short history lesson to get you caught up.

Wiseman makes the very odd choice of introducing us to Colin Farrell in all his half naked glory (I'm not complaining, just saying), the lightly haired chest, the gym physique, the low cut pajamas. He's so beautiful to look at that the film undermines its own nasty follow up plot point that this "everyman" couldn't have won a hot wife like Kate Beckinsale on his own so DUH, his life must be fake! Wiseman is either blind to Farrell's beauty or he's just bragging about his wife again. Or both.

To his credit though, Wiseman does have an eye for action. He lacks the imagination and verve of the genre's masters (Cameron, Bigelow, Spielberg, and very few others), and has trouble making chases, fist fights, and shoot outs feel individualistic but he can make them legible to the eye and intermittently exciting. That's sadly more than can be said for many action directors including those with much stronger critical reputations. The two best action setpieces in Total Recall both make use of sudden shifts in gravity in creative ways.  Total Recall has one or two flashes of inspiration in its visual effects and art direction (the audience laughed heartily at a shot of future money but I won't spoil that) but production designer Patrick Tatopoulous has seen as much of the eternally influential Blade Runner as everyone else.

The original Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger debuted in 1990 may have been dated upon arrival. It's always felt like a leftover 1980s sci-fi movie, filled with cheesy bombast, Ahnuld quips, latex grotesqueries and body count carnage comedy. The new Total Recall is less goofy all around (it stays on Earth for one) and less amused by the death of extras in crowded scenes but it's also significantly less fun and unlikely to incite anything like the original's fanbase.

Farrell may have wasted a perfectly great performance on Fright Night which no one cared about or saw... and he feels committed to this one, too, though less cheerfully so. Among the central cast only Kate Beckinsale's Hair is having a good time!

Grade: C-
Oscar Chances: Er, no. Unless there's a longshot slot for visual effects

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Reader Comments (16)

"her locks are practically prehensile, whisking about expressively and frantically like they're after their own Oscar since the woman attached has long abandoned serious acting."

That's mean.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfilmdr

filmdr: Mean, yes. True? Also yes. Substantive directors worked with in phase one of career: Branagh, Jim McBride (a stretch, yes, but he's at least arguable) (known for David Holzman's Diary), Gabriel Axel (best known for Babette's Feast), Whit Stillman (best known for Metropolitan), Merchant Ivory, Cholodenko and Scorsese. Phase two of career, after her first extended break: David Gordon Green and that's it.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Despite my affection for Colin Farrell (due almost solely to In Bruges), Jessica Bie,l and to an extent Kate Beckinsale, is more than enough to cause me never to see this movie. Ever.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

In Beckinsale's defense, she and Farminga were very good in "Nothing but the Truth" but she received no end of year critical praise and the movie bombed. Guess her and her team were like "f this shit, let's get some paychecks!" She does however have a drama on the docket from the promising director of "The Dead Girl."

As for "Total Recall", I might have liked it a touch more than you (C+). Agree about the well shot action, and the Farrell/Beckinsale/Cranston trio did solid work. Entertaining and solidly crafted, but really forgettable. Borrows heavily from a lot of better movies.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

If you don't find humor in Nolan's films then it's you who are humorless, Nathaniel. There's plenty of humor is all three Batman movies. What do you want? Fucking Schumacher? We get it, you don't think comic-book movies should be taken seriously. But you. Are alone.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermoveguy

If you don't find humor in Nolan's films then it's you who are humorless, Nathaniel. There's plenty of humor is all three Batman movies. What do you want? Fucking Schumacher? We get it, you don't think comic-book movies should be taken seriously. But you. Are alone.

You need to relax. Christopher Nolan is an easily amused human being. It shows in all his films, including how he cast them.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

Hey, don't bag on Beckinsale if you haven't seen Nothing but the Truth.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDean

moveguy --- ah but you're wrong on the second to last point about me not thinking comic book movies should be taken seriously. I think all genres are capable of brilliance. I just don't think Nolan's Batman movies are the best superhero movies.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

everyone -- i really didn't think i was being mean to Kate Beckinsale, where is everyone's sense of humor today? I was just having some fun with the review because her hair was awesome. It was like the stylists were just off camera flying around with her touching it up between frames.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Part of me wants to defend Beckinsale in her action roles, even though in the latter half of Total Recall, I wanted to laugh whenever she showed up looking increasingly annoyed with Douglas' stubborn survival.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfilmdr

I watched this movie yesterday. I felt it was not absolutely bad. It started up somewhat ok but then kept getting worse and worse until almost unbearable...yawn....fascinating though how they casted those three actors, Kate, Jessica and Colin (with an exception of In Bruges) are the three actors I couldn't feel anything with and couldn't care much less, well outside of those obvious comedy actors.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChamp

Oh dear: I didn't like this at all. A frantic, noisy confusing mess which contained no originality at all; merely a collection of seemingly random and re-hashed scenes and ideas taken from many other films - Blade Runner, Minority Report, Battlestar Galactica, A. I., The Bourne Identity and Terminator all come to mind.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee

You forgot to mention this film's lack of right to exist.... :P

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfatpie42

The actors in Total Recall are capable performers, but the action scenes just turn into unmemorable mush. I was distracted by Beckinsale's immobile face. She used to have an expressive, charming, engaging face. Now, it seems an immobile mask, and I don't think it's just the part. And that's kind of regrettable.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradri

moveguy - Nathaniel is actualy Not. Alone. (See? I can do pointless punctuation, too!) Others have pointed out the overly-heavy grimness of Nolan's Batman movies, too. Yes, TDKR had 1 or 2 bits of humor (Bruce's little tool to deactivate the paparazzi camera provided a brief chuckle), but Nolan really tried to write some snappy quips, especially for Catwoman, and good god he just can't. Just not his forte.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I kind of have to agree with what Adri stated. Beckinsale ruined it a bit for me. There was a bit too much hardness in her performance. At the end of the day, I saw a lot of stuff blow up and I was out 13 bucks.

August 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZack Mandell
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