‘Total Recall’ lives in shadow of original

To say that the movie industry is remake and sequel happy is an
understatement. Often too cautious to bankroll new, possibly
groundbreaking material, studios are sold on rehashing old projects
that worked. Why takes chances?

This, of course, sets up the movie world for criticism, and
certainly discourages undiscovered writers out there who have
wonderful stories that could be turned into great films.
No doubt, with all the money at stake, movie financiers opt to take
the safe route, settling for the security of a guaranteed return,
absorbing the critical barbs in the process.

“Total Recall” is a movie that could have done just fine without a
remake. Based on a short story by the brilliant Philip K. Dick, the
original 1990 release cashed in on the enormous star power of Arnold
Schwarzenegger. Never a great actor by any means, Schwarzenegger
possessed a colossal presence on the screen. He actually looked like
he could inflict great damage on his foes. In addition, “Total
Recall” offered Schwarzenegger a chance to portray vulnerability and
puzzlement, to have to react to things way out of his control.

Now, 22 years later, Colin Farrell has been asked to step in for
Arnold, playing the lead role of Douglas Quaid in the new “Total
Recall.”

In a post-chemical-warfare world, there are only two habitable
areas left on Earth — England, where the elite and powerful United
British Federation thrives, and The Colony, on the former Australian
continent — in the Dick short story and original movie, The Colony
was on Mars. The Colony is where the oppressed, cheap labor live.

Quaid, haunted by a recurring nightmare in which he is some sort of
operative, lives in The Colony with his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale),
who seems to be an important part of the UBF security force.

This is clearly an interesting marriage. Lori appears to be much
higher on the social ladder than Doug, who every day has to board
what appears to be a massive elevator that drops through the core of
the Earth to the UBF. There, he is a drone, working on an assembly
line that produces synthetic armed personnel — soldiers and police.
Why Lori’s good standing with the UBF does not help Doug get better
work or the couple better living conditions is not explained — and
Doug apparently cannot figure this out either, or he would be a
little more suspicious of this arrangement.

Nevertheless, Doug is a restless spirit, wanting more out of life.
Denied a promotion, he goes out one night to try Rekall, a company
that offers mind implants to enable the user to mentally indulge in
fantasies. Something goes wrong, as there is more to Doug than even
he realizes. Application of the Rekall procedure somehow unlocks some
chemically induced memory suppressors, and it turns out Doug is
actually some sort of highly skilled operative, just like he dreamed.

This, of course, puts him at odds with his wife, and the best part
of the movie is unleashed as Lori tosses aside the loyal wife act and
becomes a tenacious assassin, with Doug in her sights.

Meanwhile, the UBF, with the sinister Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) in
charge, is dealing with a rebel uprising among The Colony
inhabitants, lead by Matthias (Bill Nighy), seeking to end to
financial and social oppression of The Colony.

Doug spends a good portion of the movie trying to outrun the
bulldogged pursuit of Lori, who has an endless supply of police,
synthetic soldiers and artillery at hand. It is a treat to watch
Beckinsale, borrowing some of her physical prowess from her
“Underworld” movies, be a deadly nemesis to Doug.

Luckily, Doug finds he has allies, mostly in Melina (Jessica Biel),
who turns out to be the woman in his recurring dream — somebody with
whom he had some sort of relationship previously.

In between dodging Lori’s vicious arsenal, Doug tries to figure out
just who he is. And with people playing mind games with him,
including Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), a factory co-worker and drinking
buddy, he has all kinds of stimuli to sort out. In the end we never
really know who Doug is, or what function he served at UBF that made
him such a threat that his mind was essentially erased.

Farrell, under the burden of filling in some big shoes, has the
physical chops to take on the role and adequately conveys a man
suddenly presented with some mind-boggling revelations about his
existence and what he thought his life entailed.

Beckinsale steals the movie as Lori, however. She is nasty but
beautiful — a real cold-hearted agent of mayhem. She makes it
evident that her love for and loyalty to Doug was not sincere, and
when she learns who he really is, she is determined to dispense with
orders from above to bring Doug in alive.

Biel also shows some excellent moves in brutal engagements — she
and Beckinsale duke it out in an elevator in a wonderfully
choreographed slug- and kickfest.

Cranston appears to savor an opportunity to play the power-mad
villain, with most of his dialogue used to insert the verbal needle
into the seemingly vanquished Doug. Nighy has a very small role for
an actor of his stature, mostly resorting to his calm dignity to
provide some meat to his brief on-screen appearance.

“Total Recall” would be better appreciated had it been an original.
It does, however, benefit from the great progress over the last 20
years of special effects and set designs, with stunning visuals of
the UBF, The Colony and the eerie abandoned and contaminated areas of
Earth.

Vernor’s Ticket tidbit:
Dwight Frye (1899-1943), who will always be
remembered for his roles of the tragic Renfield in “Dracula” (1931)
and the hunchbacked assistant Fritz in “Frankenstein” (1931),
struggled in his later career. His roles in subsequent Universal
Studios horror films grew smaller. Eventually, he landed a job with
Lockheed during the war and even turned down an opportunity to take
on the role of Alexander Hamilton in a Broadway production of “The
Patriots,” in part because of his obligations to help the war effort
at Lockheed. Much like the tragic characters he is remembered for,
Frye died young — of a heart attack — right at the time he had been cast
to play Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in the Darryl F. Zanuck
production of “Wilson.” Likely, upon Frye’s death, the role of Newton
was cut down, as Reginald Sheffield played the role in the movie,
uncredited. “Wilson,” although critically acclaimed, winning five
Academy Awards in technical and writing categories, was a box-office
flop. A biography of Woodrow Wilson just did not fire up audiences in
the 1940s.

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