Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Push (2009)

In Push’s world, there exists an international underground of people with various psychic powers, reaching from telekinetics to people who can scream really unpleasantly, from people with mind control powers to various types of clairvoyants. Many of them are controlled – willingly or not – by various government agencies, though the film is a little ambiguous regarding how much control these agencies actually employ about the powered.

We do learn quickly enough that the American organization concerned with this – led by one Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) – is rather evil, what with them doing human experiments and murdering the father of what will be our protagonist. And that just after Dad has given him what very much sounds like the beginning of a chosen one prophecy it’s not really turning out to be!

At the start of the film’s main plot, said protagonist Nick Gant has all grown up to be played by Chris Evans, and is trying to keep something of a low profile in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as low as he imagined it to be, for the Division knows exactly where he lives and which triad he’s owing money to - they clearly just don’t see him as much of a potential threat. So when a suitcase containing a rather important substance makes its way to Hong Kong carried by a woman we will later learn is Nick’s ex-girlfriend Kira (Camilla Belle), a couple of Division agents come sniffing around his apartment, threaten him a bit, and leave. Nick’s just about to go on the run when another visitor comes in. This time it’s teenage pre-cog (“watcher” in the film’s terminology) Cassie (Dakota Fanning). Cassie is – for various and complicated reasons – after the same thing as the Division agents and really wants Nick’s help.

Eventually, they team-up and become involved in various plots and counter-plots that also involve some Chinese operatives with a much better watcher than Cassie is (Li Xia-Lu). At least, they’ll be able to team up with a handful of other independents with middling super powers (Ming-Na Wen, Cliff Curtis and Nate Mooney).

Paul McGuigan’s Push seems to be what happens when someone imagines the X-Men by way of the European post-Bourne spy film with visible influences reaching from classic heist flicks to – appropriately enough - Hong Kong cinema. That might sound a bit like a high concept mess, but in fact, the resulting movie is pretty great. Push is surprisingly excellent at finding the point where the genres and influences it is working from coalesce, making it all feel much more organic than I would have expected.

I’m particularly fond of the way David Bourla’s script plays with genre expectations, often diverting from the tropes of one genre to that of the next one to surprise the audience and even subvert the usual plot beats a bit. An example is the way the prologue and the first act suggest that this is going to be a Chosen One tale with Nick as its Chosen, when the film instead turns out to be about a handful of characters who are all down on their luck one way or the other trying to do some good in a world that has stacked all cards against them, with Nick honestly not being particularly special.

Even our heroes’ super powers aren’t terribly impressive: Nick loses practically every fight he gets in, Cassie is a much less precise and clear pre-cog than her Chinese counterpart - not to speak of the things her mother could do - and their friends have powers of very limited applicability. Only Kira’s actually dangerous in that regard, though she’s a rather ambiguous character, and not just because the film is pretty good at showing how horrible the things her mind control powers do to her victims actually are.

Push does particularly well with the surreal and strange parts of its world, really making its audience feel the strangeness of a place where characters try to find a way through to a half-knowable yet always shifting future, where what you think who you are might not be true because someone might just have literally put your past in your head. There’s often something appropriately hallucinatory to McGuigan’s direction, his characters moving through a world that feels just ever so slightly off yet at the same time hyper-real.

In this regard, the director makes perfect use of Hong Kong locations that look and feel like strange, neon and candy-coloured pieces of a slightly mad near future, at once absolutely real and knowable yet ever so slightly disquieting and off. Which might sound like exoticism but seems to speak to the nature of actual Hong Kong as the dream of a very peculiar futurist, something it seems to share with Tokyos, real and imagined.

There’s quite a bit of interesting thematic work going on in the background here, too, with more than just one character having to carry the burdens as well as the hopes of their parents generation, with some of these burdens rather cruel, some inevitable, some very much imagined and some kinder as they seem. The film doesn’t really fall into the trap of simplifying this either, with what we can glean of the motivations of the absent parents mostly as complex as that of actual parents. Like it is with the future in Push’s world, things are complicated, ambiguous, and generally not as clear and easy they seem.

Which of course all fits neatly into the superpowered spy/heist film tale the film tells, suggesting a surprising amount of care and thought having gone into the writing. Why, the film even largely manages to keep this up throughout its final act, even though there’s a bit of angling for a sequel that will never come. The film’s action is rather on the excellent side, too – varied, inspired by Hong Kong cinema yet not aping it, and taking place in diverse and interesting environments.

There are quite a few other small touches I love about the film: there’s the number of character actors from Hong Kong popping up everywhere (the film’s thanking Johnnie To’s Milkyway as their local co-operator for a reason), the imaginative and telling way even the same power works differently here for different people, the film’s love for people who aren’t born to be heroes and still do their best, the various wry nods at pop-cultural touchstones, the general quality of the cast, and quite a bit more.

Clearly, I have a bit of a crush on Push, and why not? It certainly deserves it.

No comments: