Ric Roman Waugh, 2013
"Once I was a normal person. A chump, just like you."
I’m fond of saying that there’s little bad acting in major — and even independent — American films. There’s an occasional misfire, sure, and instances where actors are clearly outshone by their co-stars, but genuine ineptitude is hard to come by. Often, there’s too much money at stake — a pretty face whose acting talent is less than prodigious can usually be helped by editing, shot selection, and a budget big enough to do take after take. Not every performance will blow you away, but truly cringe-worthy moments are rare.
Hayden Christensen is a perplexing case. My first instinct is to say that he is an exception, an actor who has achieved fame and popularity but who simply does not belong on the screen. But that seems wrong: his performances are technically competent, he delivers dialogue with some conviction, and his presence is never jarringly off. The problem, I’m coming to realize, is less with him as an actor and more with him as… Well, with him as a person. He’s not interesting. There’s nothing behind his eyes. His characters don’t seem like fake people (as they would were he simply inept), they seem like boring people, and not too bright.
His utter vacancy is a bane on Jumper, an otherwise serviceable sci-fi thriller that would have benefited from a compelling center. He plays David Rice, who, as a teenager, discovered the ability to teleport anywhere in the world. Bullied at school and neglected by his father, he uses his newfound powers to embark on a life of laziness and entitlement, robbing banks to finance an awesome New York City penthouse and spending his days on exciting world excursions (he particularly likes the head of the Sphinx). His freewheeling existence is interrupted by the arrival of Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), a “Paladin” who hunts “jumpers” like Rice, trapping them with electricity and stabbing them with an enormous knife. Roland supposedly works for a government agency — the NSA is mentioned a lot — but he is also a religious fanatic, his hatred for jumpers stemming from his belief that they are an abomination unto the Lord. “Only God should have that power,” he intones.
It doesn’t help that the screenplay has Rice make some questionable decisions — upon learning that Paladins are on his tail and determined to kill him, his first move is to seek out his father (Michael Rooker) and his not-quite high school sweetheart (Rachel Bilson), and take the latter on a trip to Rome. But the dead-eyed Christensen ensures that there’s nothing for us to latch onto. And Bilson, whose job is mostly to shake her head in stunned disbelief is hardly more engaging.
Matters get both better and worse when Jamie Bell shows up as a seasoned jumper who has made it his business to kill Paladins. Bell is so fascinating, so immediately and almost viscerally compelling, that he runs away with the film as soon as he appears. Quick, nervous, shifty-eyed and funny, he gives Jumper a no-pun-intended jolt of much-needed electricity. On the other hand, he blows Christensen off the screen, further accentuating the former Darth Vader’s fundamental blandness.
The movie is actually better than I’ve let on — the premise is rich, and Liman and his screenwriters create an intriguing if scant mythology around it. They take advantage of the sci-fi gimmick, staging a genuinely exciting climax involving teleporting double-decker buses, and a fight scene that spans continents. Liman gives the teleportation itself some physical force; every jump has an impact and appears to take effort. And to the extent the film is a morality play — there’s a pointed scene early on where David watches live footage of a disastrous flood on the news and then proceeds to teleport to London for a good time — it’s at least interesting, if ultimately incomplete (David is largely let off the hook).
My account of Christensen as boring rather than untalented is bolstered, I think, by his universally acclaimed performance in Shattered Glass, a film that was able to take advantage of his blankness in a role meant to convey an inscrutable amorality. But in something like Jumper, which requires a sympathetic and morally ambiguous hero, his presence is counterproductive. I enjoyed the film, but it’s as superficial as Christensen.
-- Eugene Novikov
|Starring:||Jackson, Rachel Bilson, Hayden Christensen, Michael Rooker, Jamie Bell, Samuel L|
|Directed by:||Doug Liman|