Sunday, September 4, 2016

Imperium Review

Daniel Radcliffe has gone from boy wizard to grand wizard.

It's always interesting to see what happens to child stars as they grow older. There's something about watching a actor grow up in front of our eyes that's heart warming, but then they eventually reach a point where the public unfortunately no longer cares about them when they're an adult. There are really three types of adult child actors. You have the ones that self imploded who can't deal with being an adult, so they lash out with drugs, sex, and alcohol (see Amanda Bynes and Miley Cyrus). You have the ones that are apparently doing well for themselves, but have faded into obscurity intentionally so they can just live their life (see Macaulay Culkin and Mara Wilson). Then you have the ones that keep on acting and jump into more mature roles and stay in the public eye. That's where Daniel Radcliffe comes in.

I'll be the first to come out and say that I haven't seen all of the Harry Potter films. I only made it up to the 4th one, and yet I still know that Daniel Radcliffe is a quality actor that is the real deal. He's not a fluke like the Olsen twins were, who were much more comfortable being fashion designers than actors. Radcliffe has and continues to work his ass off as an actor, challenging himself with trickier and more difficult movies. Imperium is Radcliffe finally starting to make a case for Best Actor at the Oscars, but there's not much to it here.

Radcliffe is Nate Foster, a low level FBI agent who has been assigned to go deep undercover into a group of white supremacists in order to find out where a batch of deadly chemicals has disappeared to. While most of the FBI believes that the chemicals have been taken by Muslim terrorists, Radcliffe's boss, Agent Zamparo, thinks that an internal terrorist group have stolen the chemicals to make a dirty bomb of some kind. Radcliffe enters into various white supremacist groups like the Neo Nazis, Aryan Nation, and even suburban racists in order to find these chemicals, all while trying not to get caught in the process.

Imperium is a political thriller at its heart, and invokes so much racism and uncomfortableness in the viewer that it's actually kind of amazing to watch. To see a movie in 2016 deal with blatant racism and neo nazism in the wake of movements like Black Lives Matter is ballsy to say the least, and I can respect the film making for getting such a difficult message out; that the worst kind of terror is home grown and built upon our own insecurities and hatred.

The most effective scenes in the movie are whenever Radcliffe talks to a man named Jerry, a suburban white supremacist. He has a family, lives in a normal house, listsens to Wagner, and teaches his children to distrust "the mud people". His scenes are always the most terrifying because if he never openly said he was a racist, he would be a perfectly good father. He makes family dinners, encourages others not to curse in front of his kids, and supports anyone who comes to him in need. Jerry is the kind of character that's the most frightening; he's a monster, but you would never know it.

The socio-political messages raised in in Imperium are one thing, but it all doesn't matter if the movie can't support these ideas or deliver them effectively. Sadly, Imperium doesn't really do anything special to get across this sense of undermining hatred. In fact, I'd go so far to say that Imperium is monotonal. From beginning to end, the feeling of the movie never changes. For an hour an a half, we only see Daniel Radcliffe as a skinhead, someone may suspect him, he disproves them, then they go on with their lives while Radcliffe relays all of the information to his boss. Rinse and repeat.

Every time I saw someone interrogated Radcliffe about his intentions or if he was a cop, I couldn't help but think that I saw this exact scene 10 minutes ago. Granted, the severity of the mistrust grows throughout the movie, but it's still the same feeling. He gets called out for wearing Levi jeans, he hides a laptop in his apartment, he stops someone from attacking a hispanic person, he stops someone from attacking a crowd of protesters, etc, etc. There's growth in these situations, but if the result is always the same, if becomes boring to watch.

That isn't to say the Radcliffe isn't good in Imperium. As a matter of fact, he's actually pretty decent here, playing a man who has to think quickly on his feet despite being completely out of his league. He has to immerse himself into a world of hatred, yet come out clean at the end. He plays all of his scenes with the same level of intensity while still trying to do what's right, but I would chalk that up to bad directing than bad acting. Keep in mind, a bad director can ruin great actors if they have no direction, so Radcliffe giving a formulaic performance is fine because Radcliffe makes the formula so compelling.

When I first heard about Imperium, I was excited to see what it. You don't usually see many movies nowadays deal with racism and bigotry as blatantly as it's done here. We're talking about Birth of a Nation levels of hatred and white supremacy here, and in a world where the biggest and most talked about Oscar movies are usually about the strength of the human mind, the joys of being an artist, or about exposing the truth for a righteous cause, it's still refreshing to see a movie delve into such ugliness and hatred to get across its message. Make no mistake, Imperium is a relevant film in 2016, just not a particularly amazing film.

It almost felt like I was watching three separate films at times. Every half hour, Radcliffe would defect from one racist group to another, and the same sequences of events would play out. Each sequence always escalated and dealt with different themes or racism/terror, but when all of them felt the exact same, it doesn't do the film any favors.

It sucks that I'm not more positive towards Imperium, because it's at least an interesting premise for a film. I would have loved to see a movie that got even dirtier, even more violent, and had way more of an edge than what it has now, and to say that Imperium is edgeless is probably the sole reason why it didn't love it.

Hell, looking back at Sicario, a violent political thriller I reviewed last year, I almost feel bad for being as harsh on it as I was then. Granted it's still not a fantastic movie, but at least it had memorable moments and some truly disturbing imagery behind it. Imperium swaps out the gruesome imagery and nihilism for solid acting performances that hold the film together. Radcliffe makes the movie watchable, and I don't regret watching it, but when you make a movie about Neo Nazis, the KKK, and Aryan Nation, it should feel more controversial and powerful than this.


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