Sunday, February 28, 2016

Retroactive (1997)

Warning: there are spoilers ahead

Former Chicago PD psychologist Karen (Kylie Travis throwing herself into the only good role she’ll ever play with all she’s got) is having a really hard time. She’s just quit her job after a hostage negotiation went horrible wrong, and is now going back to her roots somewhere in Texas. In this particular case, that means having her car break down out on a desert highway.

Things don’t improve for Karen when she’s picked up by a loud-mouthed asshole named Frank (James Belushi doing what he does best) and his at least psychically battered wife Rayanne (Shannon Whirry demonstrating that being mostly a softcore actress doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t act when a film lets you). Frank’s not just knee-deep in some sort of illegal activity but he is also just this short of breaking out into all kinds of crazed violent behaviours. Learning Rayanne is – quite understandably – cheating on him sure will do the trick. So soon Karen finds herself witnessing Frank murdering Rayanne, and just barely escapes into a one-man research facility where she just happens to get sucked back in time into her body of twenty minutes ago.

She still has all the memories and knowledge she had accrued in these twenty minutes though. Instead of sitting there slack-jawed as you and I would do, Karen at once takes charge trying to disarm the whole Frank situation, but her all attempts – despite her being ridiculously competent and off-handedly badass - only lead to an even higher body count and herself again having to flee into the research facility. Perhaps the next time’s the charm?

Retroactive’s director Louis Morneau is one of those generally ignored and unsung people who went through the early 90s under the tutelage/thumb of Roger Corman – the last point when that was a good thing for anyone but Corman. That means he’s learned how to shoot cheap, not necessarily stupid genre films and how to keep them entertaining as well as on budget.

The film at hand really is a case in point. It starts off with a preposterous set-up stitched together out of lost and found bits of other popular movies of the time that absolutely should not work together at all, but is redeemed by Morneau treating these ideas with utter seriousness and conviction, as well as with an eye for telling details that turns a cliché into something that feels real – or at least real enough for ninety minutes.

One of the great pleasures of Retroactive is when you realize – about halfway through when you’re me – how well constructed it actually is, how clever it uses facts it has established earlier on to turn any given situation into an even greater clusterfuck for Karen than the last time she went back in time, every attempt to change things for the better only making everything worse. The film’s solution to that problem is Karen just stepping back from the whole situation in the end, which also suggests her letting go of the guilt for the failed hostage negotiation. So, this is an action film that solves its plot by suddenly yet organically cutting off the increasing escalation of the violent proceedings by having its – utterly badass – heroine reassessing her situation and realizing what she isn’t able to change. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen something quite like this before.

Up to this point, said escalation is pretty brilliant too, Morneau squeezing an enormous amount of thrills out of four cars, half a dozen characters, a highway, a gas station and an underground time travel facility, using all these elements in a way that makes the film feel much bigger than he should by all rights do. The direction is tight, the plot runs at the proverbial breakneck speed yet the few slower moments and the finale when the film suddenly and very deliberately turns calm are just as effective. I don’t want to throw around a word like “masterful” but I can’t see how you could improve on what the director does with his material here.

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