"Total Recall" is an action thriller about reality and memory. Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories. For a factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), even though he's got a beautiful wife (Kate Beckinsale) who he loves, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life - real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs. But when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man. Finding himself on the run from the police - controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world - Quaid teams up with a rebel fighter (Jessica Biel) to find the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy) and stop Cohaagen. The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate. (from WelcomeToRecall.com)
In an age of cinema where it's isn't infrequent to see a movie being remade or a franchise being rebooted, it's still a bit surprising to see the 1990 sci-fi action film Total Recall getting a redo only twenty two years later. But that's exactly what Sony has done here and there has been nothing but backlash about it from film fans since its announcement. Most remakes don't live up to their originals, especially if special effects become the main reason for the remakes to happen in the first place. But just one glance at the trailer for 2012's Total Recall and it's clear that it's a story that just screams to be made with today's visual technology.
However, the problem with movies that rely on visuals is that there needs to be more behind it than just spectacle (Roland Emmerich may disagree). Most new stories that marry spectacle with story end up being pretty well executed--Minority Report and I, Robot instantly come to mind in this genre--so when a film like this one is remade, it's difficult not to be reminded of those very films. As a result, even though I've never seen the 1990 R-rated original Total Recall movie, there still exists a glaring sense of been-there, done-that with the 2012 take-two of Total Recall. It probably doesn't help much that rookie director Len Wiseman is behind the lens on this one. The director got his start with the first Underworld movie, which is how he met actress Kate Beckinsale, who he married a year later. He then did the first sequel to Underworld and then the 2007 fourth Die Hard movie, Live Free or Die Hard (Since then, his only directing credit is the pilot episode for the 2010 TV series reboot of Hawaii Five-O). With Live Free..., that was a film that was prepped to be rated R, but the studio called for a PG-13 cut to be released to theaters. The end result was a very rough PG-13 film that was laden with profanity and action violence. Wiseman's theatrical cut of Total Recall feels very similar in that it was clearly intended to be an R-rated film until Sony must have asked for a PG-13 cut to get by the ratings board (Or they filmed different versions of several lines and scenes so that two possible edits could exist, which is also what happened with Die Hard). From blatant nudity to constant profanity, on down to the nonstop violence, Total Recall feels like a poorly censored R-rated film all-around.
Since I never saw the Arnold Swartzenegger original, I can't really compare the two films, but according to most talk online, the remake is way too close to the original to warrant ever having been made. For me, as a fan of good action movies, Total Recall feels so much like many other movies. Whether it's got the futuristic street design of Blade Runner or the identity crisis of The Bourne Identity (there's even a similar scene in a bank where he finds evidence of his other lifestyle), or there's the futuristic car chase from Minority Report (another Philip K. Dick story, the author who wrote the short story that Total Recall was derived from originally) and even a stand-off outside of an elevator like in 16 Blocks, almost all of this feels familiar. And the presence of robot enforcers looks and feels like I, Robot. So, even viewed as a stand alone film, there's too much about this Total Recall that feels like it's piggybacking off of, not only the original movie, but others like it since then. And this is something Wiseman can probably be faulted for.
Stepping into Arnie's shoes, however, is a far stronger actor in Colin Farrell. Love him or hate him, Farrell is a versatile actor who gets the job done here, while Arnold was so stylistic in his acting that it's like comparing a stylized singer with someone who naturally has an incredible voice. He's believable as both Hauser and Quaid and was a good choice for this role. Kate Beckinsale, while undoubtedly cast here because of her director husband, is good as Quaid's wife but soon just turns into this scowling swirl of anger and leg kicks as she chases after Quaid to kill him (This is my first time seeing her in an action role, however, as I've purposefully avoided the Underworld films; I loved Beckinsale in Serendipity, however). It makes her character sorely one-dimensional, and it also hurts the story overall a bit as she's not much more than an action movie cliche here. The other villain, Cohaagen, doesn't really show up until the end of the movie, which makes it hard to see him as anything other than some guy our hero is supposed to fight and destroy. Similarly, Jessica Biel's Melina isn't given a whole lot of story as she exists to be the sole good girl in the movie to accompany our protagonist (she's kind of like Marie for Jason Bourne... if they never really developed her character and just threw her into the mix without stopping to give you a reason to really care). The only character who really seems to get much depth is Farrell's Quaid. Bill Nighy even makes a short appearance in the film but doesn't get to do much at all before he's gone again. By the end, Total Recall serves as an action movie with spectacle with not much else to offer. While a film like this in Michael Bay or Stephen Sommers' hands may have called for even less story and even more bloated silliness, Wiseman at least tries to keep his Total Recall from getting too campy or otherworldly. In fact, he drops the Mars planet plot that was in the 1990 film and Philip K. Dick's story, and keeps everything here on Earth in a post-apocalyptic setting. It works for the most part, but on no level other than a being a film that serves as a straight-up action vehicle. With a 2-hour running time, Total Recall feels too long and exhausting, which shouldn't be the case of a really well-told story with action. Where the Jason Bourne trilogy would take plenty of time to balance thrills and character development, Wiseman forsakes the latter for the intent to go heavy on the attempt at producing thrills for his audience. And while it's certainly an entertaining movie, it just feels like the kitchen sink has been thrown at you, along with everything else.
And like with Live Free or Die Hard, Wiseman once again pushes what can be accepted under the PG-13 banner. The most obvious is the re-appearance of the apparently famed three-breasted woman from the 1990 film. Here, a prostitute approaches Quaid and comments that he looks like he's looking for something and opens her jacket to reveal three entirely bare breasts (nipples and all). It's a bit jarring considering that kind of bold nudity isn't typical for PG-13 films, and it's entirely gratuitous. It has no bearing on the story and is present just to be a nod to the 1990 movie (and squeeze nudity in there). After that, there's relentless profanity. It's of the PG-13 variety, but Wiseman attempts to let everything squeak by that he possibly can get in there. Beckinsale shouts the lone "F" word (I believe "Are you *$&@! kidding me?" is the line) pretty emphatically, while it's apparent that other possible places of it being used during the movie are edited out. There are at least 40 uses of the "S" word and several uses of blasphemy, including "J-sus," "J-sus Chr-st," and "g*dd*mn." Lastly, the violence is pretty intense throughout. The most graphic scene shows Doug digging pieces of a cell phone implant out of his hand with a shard of glass. The camera lingers on it a bit, too. Other violent instances involve someone getting shot in the forehead (not graphically, though) and a person getting slashed in the back with a knife (also not too graphic) and another stabbed in the stomach with one (not graphic, but still pronounced). In addition, there's a lot of hand-to-hand combat, people being gunned down, chased, beaten up, etc. The whole feel of the movie is in line with the R movie crowd, so recommending this one is tough to do.
So what worked with the new Total Recall? If you like action, this remake delivers... in spades. There's a bit too much jumping and running and falling for its own good, however, with characters narrowly grabbing onto something to save themselves from certain death at any given time. And one character in particular apparently can just side-step major explosions and still survive to fight another time. It's those kind of absurd moments that are typical for the genre but are forgivable if it's your cup of tea. But the incredible set design and visuals make it a great futuristic popcorn movie. The idea to ground it on Earth instead of Mars makes it more interesting to me as well. The other thing that helps this movie is the strong acting team. While the material doesn't give Beckinsale much to do except glare menacingly between fights, Farrell really does a solid job as the lead. I enjoyed his work in The Recruit and even Minority Report, so it seemed odd that he's stepped out of the Hollywood spotlight to focus on more indie efforts in recent years; he plays the action hero pretty well. Jessica Biel does her job as Melina well, too, even if her character wasn't written very deeply, and the story will keep anyone unfamiliar with the 1990 original on their toes as to figuring out exactly what is up with Doug and his shady past/memories. The visuals are also quite stunning to watch as Wiseman and his team deserve props for crafting a slick looking future.
In the end, the 2012 retread of Total Recall is probably unnecessary, but its not-quite-there execution by Len Wiseman and his team hold it back from being the success it could have been. If a more indie-minded director had taken it and truly aimed to get back to Philip K. Dick's source material (which was titled "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), the retelling of "Total Recall" could have been a truly intriguing feat. Instead, Wiseman's Total Recall is a big, noisy, flashy and profane summer action film that could have been so much more, but settles for so much less.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 8/9/12)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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