[Screen It]

(2007) (Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi: An FBI agent recruits a reluctant Vegas magician in hopes that his supernatural ability to look into the future can help her find a smuggled nuclear bomb before it's detonated.
Cris Johnson (NICOLAS CAGE) is a low-end Vegas magician -- a.k.a. Frank Cadillac -- whose specialty is being able to predict what will happen just moments into the future. His ability is more than just a stage act, however, as he can see up to two minutes into his future, a gift that not only helps in his show, but also in gambling at the local casinos. His winning streak has not only drawn the attention of a casino's security personnel, but also FBI agent Callie Ferris (JULIANNE MOORE) and her partner Cavanaugh (TONY KITTLES), as well as a group of terrorists led by Mr. Smith (THOMAS KRETSCHMANN).

It seems the latter has smuggled a nuclear bomb into the U.S. and plans to detonate it in Los Angeles, and he and his team are concerned that Cris might be able to help Callie and the FBI find and stop them before they deploy it. Seeing his gift more as a curse, Cris wants nothing to do with Callie's proposal, and easily eludes her team's efforts to capture him since he can see their every step before they happen. Besides, he's fixated on meeting a mysterious woman, Liz Cooper (JESSICA BIEL), who repeatedly appears in his visions, but has him confounded since they appear further out into the future than any of the rest.

Once he finally meets Liz, Cris does what he can to avoid Callie and her team who are racing against the clock to stop the villains who view the seer's death as a must to pull off their plan.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
As is the case with most any business, there's no guarantee in the movie world that people will want to see your product just because it's available. Accordingly, I'd bet any number of studio execs wish they had a crystal ball to peer into the future and see if their latest film was going to be a hit or a flop.

Many a film critic -- particularly those who can pick and choose what they're going to review -- also wish they had such a device in order to separate the cinematic wheat from the chaff, at least in terms of artistry. Yet, if we did, there wouldn't be any surprises, something that makes this sort of job interesting.

Of course, when the surprises are negative -- for instance, a supposedly good film or at least one with lots of potential turning out to be bad -- that isn't much fun. On the other hand, when something great comes out of nowhere, or when what was presumably an awful film turns out to be not so bad, there's some pleasure to be had from that.

Such is the case with "Next," a film that looked like it would complete the trifecta of bad and/or painful movies starring Nicolas Cage. Despite yours truly nearly always liking the quirky actor, or the fact that the plot is based on the story "The Golden Man" by the terrific sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, this one looked like a dog, a point only reinforced by its press screening occurring just a day and a half before its release (which is usually a sure sign of inevitable junk).

Now, before any thoughts of unexpected greatness are suggested by my tease, let me point out the film isn't that good. Some of the acting is mediocre, the dialogue occasionally stilted, the pacing is sometimes off, and being a modified time travel flick, it suffers from the same loophole problems usually associated with such stories.

Despite all of that, however, it turns out to be something of a presumably unintentional hoot. While it's not bad enough to be a wholly qualified guilty pleasure, it teeters above that description often enough that it actually turns out to be fairly entertaining.

Working from Dick's original story, screenwriters Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh, Paul Bernbaum and director Lee Tamahori tell the tale of a bottom-rung Vegas magician (Cage) who has the ability to see up to two minutes into his own future. That not only comes in handy when making predictions in his magic act, but it also means it's fairly simple to avoid the casino guards after arousing their suspicion by always knowing when to walk away or stay in the game for steady profit.

He's also preoccupied by a recurring future vision of a pretty woman (Jessica Biel), mainly because it never comes true two minutes later like everything else. When he finally meets her, the scene where he tries various introductory lines on her -- and then constantly revamps his approach when his visions of the near future show him always being shot down -- is a delight and shows how the premise can be configured for entertaining results (even if it's similar to the same occurring in "Groundhog Day").

That would have been enough for a fun little pic. But the filmmakers up the ante significantly by having an FBI agent (Julianne Moore, acting badly to the point that it seems like she's doing it on purpose for reasons not exactly clear) inform the magician that they need him to peer into the future to see when and where a smuggled nuclear bomb is going to explode in Los Angeles.

Never mind the point that a two minute warning isn't much time (except in professional football where it can sometimes seemingly go on for hours, if not days), or that despite their pressure tactics, Moore and her teammates don't seem particularly harried considering what they see as soon-to-occur inevitability. Things get even goofier when the bad guys -- never identified nor personified -- also want Cage, but this time with deadly intent to keep him from spoiling their big surprise.

While all of that reeks of some bad Jean-Claude Van Damme movie one might have seen a few decades back, it does have some enjoyable moments, mostly when dealing with the temporal prognosticating of knowing when and where to shoot the bad guys and/or avoid their shots. Although they don't play it up as much as I would have liked (except for a fun twist at the end), the filmmakers also have some fun playing with the notion of whether we're seeing the final outcome of any given scene, or just the pre-vision version of it, that can then be changed.

It certainly helps that Cage is in the lead role. With that hangdog expression and yet another quirky performance, he's a blast to watch just because he's the antithesis of what one would normally expect for such a character in this sort of film. While his last three pics make one question his judgment in choosing his roles (compared to the better vehicles in which he's previously appeared), he's always fun to behold and that's certainly the case here.

The less said about the usually talented Moore the better, while Biel is as fetching as ever to the eye and has some funny responses to Cage's mannerisms as well as the overall situation in which she finds herself. The villains are instantly forgettable as are the rest of the FBI agents, while Peter Falk oddly appears in just one early scene, making one wonder why he was cast for the role and/or didn't appear in other scenes.

Although the time travel conundrum (where if one sees the future and then changes something to prevent that, how did that original future ever exist, etc.) will make logical minds reel, it only adds to the general goofiness that pervades the proceedings.

I have no idea if that was the filmmakers' intent -- methinks not, although you never know -- but the result of that and everything else in the film is silly, illogical and sometimes bad enough that it's unexpectedly entertaining. And that's something no one probably saw coming. "Next" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 25, 2007 / Posted April 27, 2007

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