Since the new season of “24” has been postponed as a result of the writers’ strike, fans hungry for a fix might appreciate this rip-off of its formula. But “Vantage Point” crams the absurdities of a full day, spread over twenty hours or so of television time, into the events of about a half-hour and a running-time of under ninety minutes, and by the end the cascade of coincidences and logical lapses drains it of excitement and leaves it seeming overwhelmingly ridiculous.
The lynchpin of the picture is the attempted assassination of President Ashton (William Hurt) at a very public terror summit in Salamanca, Spain—a shooting that occurs under the watchful eyes of his Secret Service protectors Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox). The trick is that we see the attack (and an ensuing explosion) repeatedly from the perspectives of different observers, with clues added and twists introduced along the way, until the plot shifts into chase gear in the final reels and many corpses are strewn about the landscape before a predictably upbeat conclusion. Just think of it as “Groundhog Hour” without the laughs—at least intended ones.
It isn’t possible to disclose too much about the ins and outs of Barry L. Levy’s script without spilling beans, as it were, but suffice it to say that it’s a terribly convoluted and implausible piece that doesn’t even work on its own terms. The big twist that’s supposed to shock us out of our seats is telegraphed early on by the failure to show the perspective of one of the most important characters—a dead giveaway about where things are headed—and entirely too much of the action is grounded in extreme stupidity (especially that of a love-struck Spanish cop played by Eduardo Noriega and the prexy’s security advisors played by Bruce McGill and James LeGros).
But even worse is the fact that the mechanics of the terrorists’ scheme are predicated on many decisions being taken exactly as the plotters predict—the old “We know that they’ll think we’re doing this, so they’ll do that, which means that we’ll do this instead” gambit, endlessly repeated—that inevitably you’ll be left shaking your head not in amazement at how matters are falling into place but in bemused disbelief, a feeling that’s exacerbated by the increasingly ludicrous coincidences that pile up toward the close, with characters fortuitously winding up together at precisely the right location at precisely the right moment. When this sort of nonsense is stretched out over weekly installments on the tube, in the fashion of old cliff-hanger movie serials, you can swallow it as diverting fantasy; but when squeezed into an hour-and-a-half, it becomes indigestible, even when each temporal “dial-back” is preceded by a splashy montage of highlights that looks precisely like the sort of thing that would introduce a spate of commercials (a terrible misjudgment in the usually solid editing of Stuart Baird, Sigvaldi J. Karuson and Valdis Oskarsdotter and cinematography of Amir M. Mokri).
Pete Travis directs intensely, as if he almost believed in the pulpy material, and the cast goes through their paces with an earnestness that suggests they do, too. Quaid affects a perpetually pained demeanor meant to derive from the fact that he’s just back on the job after recovering from a bullet wound suffered in a previous attempt on the president and intent to prove he’s ready for the rigors of street duty, but he just looks a mite constipated—and you’ll probably laugh out loud when you see him emerge unscathed from a prolonged car chase in the picture’s last reel. Forest Whitaker overdoes the soulful bit as an American tourist who may have captured the assassination attempt on his trusty camcorder, and Sigourney Weaver is wasted in a throwaway role as a television producer, while Fox comes across as bland on the big screen, a far cry from the sense of reluctant authority he carries on “Lost.” (After “We Are Marshall” and now this, it’s clear he needs to choose his feature roles more carefully.) But the real casting miscalculation is surely Hurt—he’s just too weird a person to be credible as the president. (We may elect people who turn out to be oddballs, but they have to look rather normal during a campaign. Hurt never does.)
Technically “Vantage Point” is solid down the line, with locations that are startlingly realistic. It’s a pity that the action that occurs in front of them lacks any realism at all.