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"A Scanner Darkly"

Directed by Richard Linklater.
Written by Richard Linklater.  Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick.
Starring the voices of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder.
Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  7/11/06


My friend Ross and I went to our respective gyms before meeting up right at game time for a freebie showing of "A Scanner Darkly" in downtown Bethesda.  After checking out the trailer for this one, I was all over it; Keanu Reeves in another "Matrix"-like sci-fi cartoon thriller?  Yeah!

The movie captures the promise of the trailer initially, but it faded after a strong first 30 minutes.  Keanu--at least, the voice of Keanu--stars as Robert Arctor, an undercover detective in an Orange County seven years from now whose alias is "Fred."  Fred, who wears a "scramble suit" by day to alter his appearance (the film's coolest animation, by far), is the lead investigator in a case to crack down on Substance D, a drug that has about 20% of the current population to thank for its popularity...Fred's boss, "Hank" (another undercover detective), doesn't know who Fred really is and asks Fred to do some research on...well, Robert Arctor.

Still with me?

Robert hangs out with some shady folks, including a guy named Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), a psychotic named Freck (Rory Cochrane, from "CSI: Miami"), a flameout addict named Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Robert's coke addict girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder).  Maybe this is why he's under investigation?  Or is it something bigger?

The setup of this near future is brought to you by author Philip K. Dick, whom Hollywood has found a hearty source of material since he's the brains behind all of the following:  "Total Recall", "Paycheck", "Blade Runner", "Minority Report" and the little-seen "Impostor."  Writer/director Richard Linklater, who has been busy of late (the "Bad News Bears" remake, "Before Sunset", "School of Rock"), does great work with the script in "A Scanner Darkly", especially early on, giving us an interesting world in which his cops and addicts operate, mixed with just fantastic dialogue between his principals.  Downey Jr. is electric as always, Harrelson is hilarious, and Reeves has, is, and will forever be able to play the smooth laid-back character that he is portraying here better than anyone.  (Hey, do one thing and do it well, right?)  The animation is cool, even if it begins to wear off on you after a while...the decision to make the film this way is an interesting one, since it is not like the sets and the "special effects" would have been all that hard to do in the first place, especially if you take away any of the scenes with the scramble suits.

And that is what began to consume my thoughts halfway through this thing; is the animation just a gimmick, and where the hell did the interesting story go?  Sure, some laughs do surface, but the main hook featuring Robert, his friends, and how they will all get him in trouble never really gets you, or more correctly, it never really got ME.  The movie leans heavily on Reeves and his character's job-based addiction later on and the visions he starts to suffer through; you learn more about the real investigation but you don't really know for sure if you care!  Ross and I were talking after the movie; I think my mistake was that after that initial setup, I was thinking big things about where this movie could go, and because I got myself too high on the potential the film was just not able to meet it.

By the time it was over, I realized that "A Scanner Darkly" was something that I really wanted to see but ultimately was just an okay film.  It certainly will not be something that I want to see again, but it can be recommended because of its unique presentation style and the Downey Jr. performance; otherwise, it's no more interesting than "Paycheck" but with better actors.  I wonder which Dick story will be ripped off by Hollywood next? 

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09