Point Of View In Tony Scott’s DEJA VU

How Tony Scott broke new ground in this unsung action thriller.

Hardcore Henry comes out this weekend (you can buy tickets here), and to celebrate, we're going to spend the week looking at films which share some element of its first-person, videogame inspired aesthetic.

Crimson Tide is more universally beloved while Man On Fire is more visceral, but of Denzel Washington’s many collaborations with the late legend Tony Scott, Deja Vu remains an unsung exercise in genre innovation. The film stars Denzel as ATF agent Doug Carlin, a man tasked with investigating a ferry explosion in New Orleans that kills over 500 people. Playing out like an antimatter universe Minority Report, Carlin teams up with FBI Special Agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) and Dr. Alexander Denny (Adam Goldberg) who introduce him to their experimental Snow White technology, which allows them to look four days into the past. The crime in question is a big, messy affair, but Carlin is focused on one individual, a victim named Claire (Paula Patton) who he begins to fall for via these time traveling observational vignettes.

On paper, Deja Vu is a straightforward potboiler, but the way Scott plays with the clever premise, it becomes an extremist extrapolation of modern audiences’ toyetic obsession with technology-focused procedurals. The film pushes the CSI approach to mystery storytelling past the breaking point. If Gil Grissom and his cohorts would sit in their glossy, chrome drenched laboratories and distill every crime to a series of soil samples and digitally-reproduced fingerprints, Carlin here is brought to a world where the sleuths remove themselves from the natural order of reality entirely. Perched in their bunker with embankments of satellites and monitors, they peer through a window to the past, like film editors sifting through mountains of footage for the right take. There’s a startling omniscience to the way they retrace the victim’s steps in pursuit of the perpetrator.

That mixed media feel and constant cutting between various perspectives is indicative of late period Scott, but no sequence in the film feels as vital and new as the car chase that unfolds about an hour into the movie. The challenge with making a groundbreaking car chase on film is twofold. You either have to amp up the style or amp up the relevance, or, hopefully, both. You may never frame something as urgent as the scenes from Bullitt or The French Connection, and if you over-focus on style, you might end up with an overlong paean to indulgence like in The Matrix Reloaded. The center set piece of Deja Vu doesn’t get the same love as many others, but it’s an impressive piece of experimentation years ahead of its time.

At a crucial point in the narrative, Carlin and the crew have finally found the man responsible for the ferry explosion (Jim Caviezel’s Carroll Oerstadt). In the past, he’s just shot and kidnapped Carlin’s partner, who chased the man down based on a clue sent by the team, unintentionally dooming him. They want to figure out where Oerstadt will go next, but he’s driving out of the range of their imaging. The only way to keep on his tail, so to speak, is to use a goggle rig that ports the Snow White tech into a headset. So long as the person wearing the rig gets close enough, they’ll be able to continue monitoring his whereabouts from these past events. Carlin takes the rig and hops in a Humvee, embarking on a strange, yet thrilling chase.

The action itself is disorienting at first, because we’re repeatedly put into the POV of Carlin himself, who drives recklessly on a road here in the present while chasing a man who already drove down this road days ago. He’s wearing clunky, oversized gear on his head with a lens showing the space around him in the past. At first, he almost gets killed in a collision, but once he has one eye here today and the other monitoring Oerstadt, Scott wildly cuts between the unintentional carnage Carlin inflicts around him while struggling to keep up with this digital memory before the trail runs cold. It’s a fascinating use of editing that’s complex without being unreadable and hectic without losing geographic cohesion. That it’s sandwiched by some efficient, clarity-providing dialogue from capable performers like Goldberg, Erika Alexander and future Daredevil supporting cast mate Elden Henson further grounds the ridiculous sci-fi contrivance in a measure of believability.

The closest descendent of this particular sequence that comes to mind is the opening race from The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, where Speed, in his mind’s eye, races his brother Rex’s record time. What makes both these scenes function so well is a style informed by relevance to the narrative. If it was just cool shots tethered together for aesthetic reasons, it might pop temporarily, but they wouldn’t resonate so well on repeat viewings. A lot of Tony Scott’s later films feel like histrionic messes, but Deja Vu remains an unsung gem, a mainstream action picture with a subversive injection of originality.