A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, PG-13, 111 mins.

Nick Gant: Chris Evans / Cassie: Dakota Fanning / Kira: Camilla Belle / Henry: Djimon Hounsou

Directed by Paul McGuigan / Written by David Bourla.

PUSH is another in a long list of action-thrillers that feels ingloriously  regurgitated from lesser elements of better films.  It borrows rather liberally from – and in some cases, nearly plagiarizes – works like THE MATRIX, THE X-MEN TRILOGY, and TV’s HEROES (the latter not a proud influence in its current form).  It has super heroes, but not in the traditional form, per se: they don’t have alter egos, spandex or muscle suits made out of rubber, and seem to occupy a curious middle ground between good and evil, which maybe the film’s only refreshing element.  Alas, PUSH is a film that is deliberately very high on substance and kinetic style, but unintentionally low on character development, plot cadence and flow, and interesting human relationships.  For all of its flash and visual jazziness, the film is surprisingly dull, convoluted, and boring. 

We get one of those lazy and obligatory opening credit narrations that takes an awfully long time to explain the particulars of PUSH’s peculiar and extraordinary universe.  Thanks largely to Nazi experiments gone horribly wrong (they will forever be cinema’s best, easy-to-go-to stock villains), there have been people that have been born with “special abilities”, sometimes without them either knowing about them or wanting them.  Thankfully, at least the film has some fun with coming up with all of the various powers (contrary to the trailers for PUSH, its not just about people with Force-like powers of telekinesis).

For example, there are “watchers” that can see the future; some are “sniffers” because of their ability to track anyone, like a dog, just by sniffing an object a person has touched; there are “wipers”, who can erase your memories, but usually for a steep price; “stitchers” can heal any wound, no matter how small or fatal; “bleeders” can scream so loud that they can rupture peoples’ eardrums – and inanimate objects – with their cries; “movers” can move and deflect objects with their minds; and finally “pushers” are able to push thoughts into another’s mind, making them do whatever the super being wants them to do

Phew.  That’s a long list.  But at least they have cool names to make them easier to decimate. 

Thankfully, the film does not waste too much exposition on how people got powers (blame evil Nazis…’nuff said!), which helps the film move quickly into is basic storyline.  Ever since the 1940’s they have been people working for an enigmatic group called “The Division” that have been trying to round up all of the super beings so that they can experiment on them to make them even more powerful.  This of course, begs the question as to why you would want to make your enemy stronger: would they not be more of a dangerous opponent as a result?  No matter, because The Division wants them to tinker with, perhaps to turn them to their Dark Side to become super soldiers…or at least that’s my interpretation.

It is important to note that many members of The Division are not normal as many of them have talents as well: one of the leaders, Carver (Djimon Hounsou), is a very adept “pusher” who always seems to have a his fiercely loyal right hand man by his side, who is such a incomparably strong “mover” that he can even deflect bullets with his mind (gotta admit, kind of sweet).  Anyhoo’, Carver has captured a recent escapee of The Division named Kira (Camilla Belle, who you may remember as the single most gorgeous and sexy prehistoric woman in movie history in the goofy and fun 10,000BC).  At the beginning of the film he attempts to administer a super-secret-super-solder-serum that will boost her powers…or kill her.  Well, she manages to survive, but also manages to escape Carver and his goon squad.  Oh, and before I forget, some seedy and mysterious Asian baddies are also after her, but as to their motives the film is never really quite clear.  All I know is that one of the gang can see the future and two young men have the ability to scream objects in thousands of pieces. 

We then cut to a subplot involving Nick (Chris “The Human Torch” Evans, once again taking a stab at the super hero genre, his third attempt), who is a rather weak “mover” that is trying to make a living on the streets of Hong Kong by cheating at “dice” (which, despite his abilities, he’s not very good at).  After one violent altercation during the aftermath of a failed game, Nick is visited by a meritorious young girl named Cassie (the ever maturing and reliably talented Dakota Fanning, arguably giving the film’s most credible performance) who is a “watcher” that is trying to look for Belle’s escaped character.  Cassie, along with everyone else, it seems, is also after a suitcase with a sought after prize that could spell doom for the heroes and victory for the villains.  Oh…geez…I almost forgot…Carver killed Nick’s dad when he was a tyke, not to mention that he also has Cassie’s mother, who is one of the best “watchers” ever (we never see her in the film).  And…Kira and Nick have a history together with one another…or…did they?   

Still with me?

To say that PUSH is densely plotted would be an understatement.  The film is so heavily rich with good ideas that it just does not seem to have any decent manner of harnessing them in a well laid out script.  Side characters (like Cassie’s mother and the one played by Cliff Curtis, who has the power to change the appearance of objects) are hastily introduced, sometimes never seen at all in the film, or are kind of brought back into the story when the screenplay feels compelled to do so.  Also, despite some ingenuity with the nature of the super beings in the film, some ideas seem obviously borrowed, like how Cassie is able to illustrate the future before it happens and how some character can wipe memories (which is essentially are transparently stolen concepts from similar characters in TV’s HEROES).  The sub plot involving The Division experimenting with a super soldier formula echoes Marvel Comics’ Captain America to a degree, and even the main baddies of PUSH seems like the distant cousin to Samuel L. Jackson’s antagonist in last year’s abortively awful JUMPER (granted, Djimon Hounsou remembers how ham-infested and ridiculous Jackson’s white haired villain was in that film, and at least he appropriately dials down his performance and underplays Carver to sustain a palpable level of real menace). 

Even though the laws and rules of the film’s world are specifically addressed and laid out, PUSH still left me asking a whole bunch of logical questions.  Like, for example, how can a person whose screams are so loud that they can rupture another person’s blood vessels not rupture their own?  Also, if you had the power of telekinesis, why in the world would you bother with using guns when you could just squeeze a man to death with your mind?  Furthermore, if you were fighting a man that was an all-powerful "mover", why bring a gun to battle him with (it would be like bring your fists to a sword fight)?  Even odder is the rationale behind handcuffing “movers”…would the restraints not prove hopelessly unreliable in their hands? 

I could go on and on, but I tried my best not to scrutinize the film’s logical loopholes.  Even if the film lacks coherence and has a story that seems blandly jumbled together, lacking flow and symmetry (often, you lack a clear view of who’s who, how they relate to one another, and the particulars of their motives), PUSH does make up for its many faults with its spirited and explosive imagery and action sequences.  The film, helmed by Paul McGuigan (LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN) has considerable fun during some of its inventive actions sequences (I especially liked on telekinetic fist fight between Evan’s hero and one of the villains, which sometimes comes affectionately off like a real-world version of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter).  The visual effects are also very competently handled and the film also makes decent use of its foreign locales (McGuigan is able to avoid annoying gimmicks and tricks, like using shaky camera work and hyperactive cuts and instead makes the action feel stylish without engaging in wicked excess).  It’s always refreshing to be able to make sense of an action sequence when the director does overwhelm and bombard viewers with frenetic and headache inducing cinematography and seizure inducing editing (ahem, Michael Bay). 

Yet, even though PUSH is sometimes a good film to just look at, on a character and human relationship level, the film is a completely negligible experience.  There is never really a true hero that commands our empathy, nor our understanding, which makes it awfully hard to care about their exploits.  Chris Evans plays his part so stoically that he forgets to infuse it with some of his trademark enthusiasm and free-spirited charm.  His love interest, Camilla Belle, although woefully easy on the eyes, has the personality of the undead in the film (their chemistry could have benefited from a Division intervention).  I liked Hounsou’s work as the cold and detached villain, even though his part seems half developed, and Dakota Fanning, who’s such an atypically mature performer for her limited age, does what she can with her snarky, sassy, but frequently sullen and gloomy character.  By the time the film reached its conclusion – which sort of smugly suggests that a sequel will come (although highly unlikely) – one just loses interest altogether. 

PUSH is not a terrible entry in the super hero sub genre: its well made, sometimes thanklessly acted, and has moments of cleverness (especially one ingenious scheme by Nick to outmaneuver and avoid detection by the Chinese Syndicate’s “watcher”), but the film essentially has a charmless and needlessly complicated script that does not find a healthy balance between its vibrant imagery and hyperkinetic style and narrative momentum and flow (too often the story makes no sense at all and baffles more than it should entertain).  Also, for a film that has been heavily advertised as a non-stop, fist clenched action-thriller, there is a surprising lack of real action in the film, which far too frequently involves characters talking and explaining things to death, which only serves to implode the film’s energy.  Without a doubt, there is a compelling and exhilarating film to be made out of PUSH’S nifty ideas, but the whole enterprise feels too half-baked, too clumsily orchestrated, and too tedious and uninteresting to be considered even moderately intriguing.  All in all, this is bargain bin filmmaking typical of this time of the release year: derivative, disappointingly executed, and noticeably un-heroic on a level of sophistication and engagement.

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