Review: Colin Farrell in ‘Total Recall’ remake delivers modest action movie pleasures

I’m that guy who really doesn’t like the Paul Verhoeven film.

I like things about it, certainly.  I like the idea of Rekall as a company and as a premise for a science-fiction film.  Then again, Rekall isn’t really a premise for a movie… it’s a device, something you still have to build a plot around, and the one undeniably genius move of the original script is having someone ask to have the secret agent memories implanted, only to suddenly find himself in a secret agent scenario, unsure if it’s really happening or if this is what he paid for.  Great idea.  Huge idea.  So much you can do with it.

Perhaps that’s why I remain disappointed by both versions of “Total Recall” to some degree.  Here’s this amazing opportunity, and both films eventually just turn into fairly standard action movies.  Verhoeven’s film ladles on the weird and tries to be subversively funny in the same way “Robocop” was, but it’s an uneasy mixture at best, and I think the Schwarzenegger film is largely witless.  This is a movie that actually contains a scene where Arnold sits at the controls of a giant drill that he uses to kill someone as he screams “SCREEEEEEEEWWWWWW YYYYYOOOOOUUUU!”  It’s hard for me to see the things the Verhoeven film does right when there is so much of it that makes me actively embarrassed to be watching it.  I saw the film a few days before it opened at a midnight screening at the theater where my friend worked.  I was tremendously excited for it, and I was a fan of Verhoeven’s work even before “Robocop.”  I’d seen “Soldier Of Orange” and “Flesh and Blood” and “The Fourth Man” already, and I really liked his overall sensibility.  To me, “Total Recall” felt like Hollywood swallowing him up, and it’s not until it spit him back out and he made “Black Book” that I was fully onboard one of his films again.

The new film is undeniably a remake of the 1990 film, and not a new adaptation of “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick.  So much of what was invented for the film has made its way into the new version that trying to deny that it’s a direct remake is a sucker’s game.  In many ways, Len Wiseman and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback seem to know that people will be playing the comparison game the whole time, so they play off of that.  They pay things off as jokes that you’ll only get if you know the original film, or they make choices that run directly counter to the original, as a way of keeping you off-balance.  There’s a lovely tribute to the work of Rob Bottin that I laughed at, doubly so once I saw how it played out in the end.  This movie is a reaction to the original as much as it’s a remake, and because of that, I think it manages to carve out its own identity.

Wiseman, best known for the ongoing “Underworld” series that he defined and for the “Die Hard” sequel where John McClane is a superhero, does a nice job in terms of world-building.  Yes, these are familiar science-fiction set dressings, but where he shows off is in the density of what he’s done.  The sets, especially one for a foot-chase that goes through many different vertical and horizontal levels, are well-realized, lived in.  And the world itself feels authentically configured, making sense in the way it’s detailed.  I like the way the cars work, and there’s a car chase that makes use of the totally different mechanics of both the cars themselves and the “roads” they’re on, and it’s smartly built in terms of set-up and pay-off.  Wiseman uses his environments to dictate what the action’s going to be.  There’s a sort of turbo elevator that goes through the entire planet twice a day called The Fall, and the first time we take that trip and see a moment of zero gravity in the middle of the planet, you know Wiseman’s going to use that later for an action beat.  And I appreciate that the film is built that way, because the utter lack of imagination in how Rekall itself figures into the story is so disappointing to me that I wanted to at least enjoy the action.

Kate Beckinsale is Lori, Quaid’s wife, and Jessica Biel is Melina, the girl he keeps seeing in the dreams that may just be his memories of another life.  They both handle themselves well in the action scenes, which is no surprise from them at this point.  Beckinsale may play down her own capabilities in interviews, but she gets the body language right to sell this stuff and to find the iconic beats inside an action scene.  Biel transformed herself into a superhero right around the time of “Blade Trinity,” and she still looks like she could punch a hole in me.  Bryan Cranston’s take on Cohaagen is a camera-ready professional politician who loves to be right there in the front of the action just in case there are witnesses later to talk about how heroic he was.  People looking for the film to be as weird as Verhoeven’s will be disappointed.  There’s no Quato here, no Mars, no mutants.  The stakes here are global in scale, all about the use of resources on a planet that has passed the breaking point, and by keeping things Earthbound, they probably saved themselves some significant storytelling headaches.  They’ve streamlined things, and it all comes down to fistfights while someone tries to turn off a doodad, pretty much the plot of any giant action film with special effects at this point.  It’s a cool sequence, the fist fights are fine, and the doodad is indeed disengaged at some point, but it’s hard not to find it all a little familiar.

The moments where the film tries to play with Quaid’s feeling of being trapped in a nightmare, unsure what’s real and what’s not, are some of the most effective, just like in the Verhoeven film.  I just wish there were more.  I wish they actually, in either film, created the feeling that reality really was up for grabs, and that everything might be a psychotic reaction to a chemical process gone wrong.  There’s a certain point in this film where there’s just a tipping point of evidence that removes the ambiguity, and I think the Verhoeven film is so smarmy about wanting to have it both ways without really earning it that I can’t enjoy the perfunctory gesture.

Technically, the new “Total Recall” is handsomely made, and the cast does exactly what they were hired to do.  I think Wiseman’s gotten better and better at staging large scale high velocity action of a certain type, and younger audiences who go simply for an action film, who have no real expectations based on the older film, are probably going to walk away happiest.  I thought Farrell did just enough at suggesting the Quaid that I am interested in for me to enjoy the film superficially.  It doesn’t stick, though, and a premise like this should stick.  It’s not enough just to be well-made and noisy… when you’ve got material this rich, you owe it to the audience to make the smartest possible version and to really have some fun with it.

“Total Recall” opens everywhere on Friday.