Push, opening today, is a crash course in how to do a cheerfully nonsensical action-adventure fantasy without winking at the audience or getting too cute. It feels revolutionary because it's so old-school. Mild spoilers.
In Push, Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) plays Nick, a ne'er-do-well telekinetic "Mover" hiding out from a secret government agency called Division. He meets the young clairvoyant Cassie (Dakota Fanning) who convinces him to help find a mysterious girl and her case, which are the key to stopping Division's evil schemes. There's just one catch: Cassie can see the future, and in the current timeline, both she and Nick die.
When I interviewed director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) about this new film, he talked about the "realism" he brought to this tale of psychics fighting against the government. You'll be happy to know that Push, at no time, feels like a work of realism. What it does have, however, is a determination to take its premise and its characters seriously at all times.
What I mean is, the film treats telekinesis and clairvoyance exactly the same way it handles guns and airplanes: they're tools, and the building blocks of a thriller. There's a moment, early on the movie, where somebody talks about trying to avoid being tracked by a "Watcher," and it feels nicely matter-of-fact. At no point in the movie is the fact that everyone has superpowers made into a big deal. They have superpowers the same way they have guns, cars, telephones and explosives.
At the same time, the film's backstory felt fleshed out enough that I kept wondering if I'd wandered into a long-established universe. The worldbuilding, involving government experiments and a complex chess game between different types of psychics, felt efficient and just detailed enough. The universe felt like it had consistent "rules," and was an interesting enough setting that I found myself thinking I wouldn't mind spending time there, in spite of my loathing for sequels and spin-offs.
And then there's McGuigan's direction, which definitely borrows a lot from his idol Wong Kar-Wai. There are lots of spooky scenes of people wandering seedy Hong Kong hallways or running through super-crowded alleyways, and if you squint it feels like an outtake from Chunking Express. The action scenes avoid shaky-cam or jump cuts, and you can actually tell what's happening most of the time. (Which is part of what I meant by "old school" above.) McGuigan uses CG effects, but keeps them mostly subtle. There's no green-screen. A warning, though: There are a couple of scenes of Evans and Fanning just walking down a corridor in slow-mo, which ought to be against the law.
By now, you can glean that I really liked Push. It wasn't a transcendant masterpiece, exactly, but it was a supremely entertaining couple of hours, and a lot more fun than most action-adventure films I'd seen. I warmed up to the characters, even if Evans' hard-bitten rogue act felt a bit well-worn. The storyline's twists and turns kept me guessing, even if they felt slightly nonsensical on a few occasions. At its best, the film is a stylish ride, and at its worst, it's still a fun movie.
The other thing I really liked about Push was the way it handled the "changing the future" storyline. If you've watched Heroes, or a number of other shows and movies, you'll be wary of stories where someone sees a bleak future and tries to change it. That way, so often, lies confusion and wank. But this storyline was the strongest part of Push, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, McGuigan keeps it visual in a way that I've never seen other narratives manage. Fanning and her rival clairvoyant are constantly drawing pictures of the shifting future in their notebooks. But even better, we see flashes of their future-visions, through a kind of haze, and you can see how they change. At one point, early in the movie, a bunch of Chinese gangsters/spies are about to murder Evans' character, Nick. But as they're killing him, their pet psychic can see the future changing - as Nick dies, the future in which the gangsters achieve their objective fades out as well. (It's hard to describe, but very clear in the actual execution.) The relationship between people's actions and the shifting futures is kept fairly concrete.
And secondly, this power of clairvoyance becomes, in the end, just another form of surveillance. (Like the "Sniffers," who can track you by sniffing your belongings.) It turns out the clairvoyant "Watchers" can only predict your future if you have made a decision to do something - if you don't make any decisions, they can't predict what'll happen next. In other words, clairvoyance is just another form of espionage that can be outsmarted or gamed.
It would not be a bad thing if Push becomes a sleeper hit and inspires a ton of copycat superpower movies. With a million superhero epics on the horizon - most of them looking almost unbearably cheesy and overloaded with too many comic-book villains per movie - it would be great if directors and writers took a few cues from Push. Especially if directors treated action sequences the way Push does - not as excuses for the story to grind to a halt for 20 minutes while the VFX people go to work, but as a continuation of the story. The movie's final showdown is huge and fairly spectacular, but it also contains actual plot developments.
It's definitely not a perfect film - I already mentioned that a couple plot twists felt slightly arbitrary. Plus, McGuigan is so eager to milk every last bit of color out of his Hong Kong setting, that he often comes annoyingly close to "exotic Oriental" imagery. (And I got a bit tired of the "deadly screaming Asian people" motif - one of the main ways the Chinese superpeople can kill you is by bugging out their eyes and screaming until your blood pours out. It gets a bit old.)
Also, as commenter OlavRockne points out, there's an annoying voice-over at the beginning, with a giant infodump. And it's a tad confusing - the movie starts out with a flashback to "ten years ago," then jumps forward to "now." And then it jumps forward again, to "two days from now." But it never goes back to "now." The whole movie takes place two minutes in the future, man!
But Push tells a straightforward story, with tons of clever plot twists that keep you wondering what'll happen and mostly make sense. The movie's action uses superpowers in a clever way, without excessive cuteness. You care about the characters, sketchily drawn though they are, and you get caught up in the action. This is all fairly basic stuff, but it feels downright revolutionary to see a film doing it well. Definitely give Push a look - it might be the best straightforward superpowered adventure we see for a while.