I miss the days when a movie about a bunch of super-powered misfits didn’t automatically imply ‘franchise’. When a feature could weave a tapestry of wild characters and exit gracefully, allowing them to carry on being super in the minds of the audience. Push misses those days, too, and creates a large, vivid world in which members of a super-powered sub-society live out their own private dramas and intrigues just under the nose of the normals.
The key difference between what I miss and what Push offers is character. Writer David Bourla (the guy who directed some of those early ’90s thumb movies…remember those?) evidently spent so much time mapping out the past, present and future for his government-made supers that he forgot to write most of them as anything resembling actual people.
This world revolves around a host of government-created beings with wild powers and pithy identifiers. Watchers see the future; Pushers implant false memories; Shifters temporarily make one object look like another; Sniffers track people by the energy they leave on objects. With very few exceptions, the abilities stand in for personalities. And when the rules of what the powers can and cannot do become fluid, my interest went away altogether.
Director Paul McGuigan (taking some time to move on from Lucky Number Slevin) has a couple good actors to offset that problem, chiefly Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans. Fanning turns out to be the hero as a prickly, wise beyond her years girl attempting to live up to her mother’s legacy. Fanning’s childbot precociousness is ideal for the character, and her perpetual bitterness keeps the movie going.
Nick (Evans) is a Mover, which means he’s possessed of both telekinesis and the ability to create Photoshop lens flares anywhere, any time. The Watcher Cassie (Fanning) tracks him down in Hong Kong, where he’s been hiding from Carver (Djimon Hounsou) and the Division goons that killed his father. Cassie says they’ve got to find a girl and a case, the latter containing something that could bring down the Division.
Nick is a total nobody on the page, but Evans gifts him with his own personality. A few others do the same: Cliff Curtis adds a little interest as a wealthy, connected Shifter, and Nate Mooney plays a guy named Pinky, who can block the tracking abilities of Sniffers, as a low-rent analog of Nick Cave.
But from Hounsou on down, most of the cast and characters are stock and stiff. As the plot convolutions and superpower varieties mount it’s all too easy to get lost in the details. The best character in the film is one many folks will already know pretty well: the city of Hong Kong. Bereft of a deep-pocketed effects budget McGuigan captures almost all of his action on the streets of that chaotic, colorful city. The environment feels more alive than any of the people on screen.
The setting would be better if it had more of a thematic impact. Most of the characters are ex-pats, and there’s a subplot involving warring Chinese and American factions. But Push leaves the implications of these powered outcasts carving out a life for themselves in another culture largely unexplored.
Generally I wouldn’t bother to knock under-budgeted effects like those on display here. McGuigan smartly unleashes them only when really necessary, and with more involving personalities they’d be easy to overlook. But when the powers become the characters, they need to be better realized than this.
(Not to mention more consistent. As the memory-manipulating Pushers become more integral to the plot, their actual abilities become indistinct. Eventually, they can do whatever the plot requires of them.)
Common touchstones for Push will likely be Heroes, Fringe and Alias. I don’t watch those shows so I left the theatre thinking of other things, like Scanners and Matt Wagner’s wonderful comic book series Mage. That’s better than any other grand statement I can make about the movie — Push made me remember a few good things I hadn’t revisited in a while, and when I left the screening I made sure to rectify that right away.