Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a film that I’ve been meaning to watch for quite a while. I am, of course talking about the 1995 sci-fi action movie “Virtuosity”.
If I remember rightly, I ended up finding this film back in either 2016 or 2017 when I was going through more of a cyberpunk phase than usual (and trying to find as many things in this genre as I could). Although I ended up getting a DVD of it back then, I got distracted by other stuff and it ended up languishing on my “to watch” pile until shortly before this review.
So, let’s take a look at “Virtuosity”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (and the film itself contains some FLICKERING LIGHTS, although I don’t know whether they’re fast/intense enough to cause a problem for some viewers).
The film begins with a uniformed policeman called Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) and another cop getting off of a train in a city filled with eerily similar-looking businesspeople. They are looking for a suspect. As they run through the pristine streets, the walls distort slightly. When they find the suspect – Sid (Russell Crowe) – a frantic gun battle begins between them. However, things start to go wrong and Sid quickly gains the upper hand.
It is then revealed that this is a VR police training simulation, developed by a large tech company, that is currently undergoing testing on convicts before being put into service. One of the convicts dies from a brain overload after being killed by Sid – an A.I. program based on the personalities of history’s worst murderers – in the simulation. The police chief, who is watching the demonstration, orders the program to be shut down before Sid fries Parker’s brain too.
Parker – an ex-cop who has been jailed for seventeen years after taking violent revenge on the person who murdered his family – is returned to prison. The prison’s cruel guards deliberately send him to a general wing of the prison where, as an ex-cop, he is hated by the prisoners. After winning a fight with a far-right hooligan who has been suspiciously let into the hallway between the cells, Parker is later interviewed by a criminal psychologist called Dr. Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), who is researching a book.
Meanwhile, the head of the tech company has a conversation with Sid and – for some bizarre reason – decides to find a way to allow him to exist in the real world. After tricking a nanotechnology researcher with a seductive A.I. program called Sheila, the company boss substitutes Sheila’s program with Sid’s. When a robotic clone of Sid emerges from the incubation chamber, he kills the researcher and leaves the facility in order to carry out a series of ever more vicious and sadistic crimes.
The police need someone to deal with Sid. Since Parker was the only one who stood a chance against him in the simulation, they offer him a pardon in return for stopping Sid…
One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it’s a reasonably fun and vaguely cyberpunk-influenced 1990s action movie. Imagine a mixture of “Demolition Man” and “Terminator 2”, but with a slightly lower budget and a slightly grittier atmosphere and this should give you some idea what to expect.
In terms of the film’s sci-fi elements, they’re fairly interesting in a retro-futuristic kind of way 🙂 This film is set in a very 1990s version of the future where realistic virtual reality, advanced fifty terabyte A.I. programs, data crystals, sophisticated bionic limbs and humanoid robots that can self-repair by absorbing glass into their bodies sit alongside CRT computer monitors, low-polygon CGI and old-school broadcast television. It’s a really interesting contrast and it gives the film a wonderfully ’90s atmosphere 🙂
Still, although the film takes some thematic influence from the cyberpunk genre – with self-aware A.I and amoral tech companies being major parts of the story – the film is probably more of an exploration of the nature of evil, infamy and narcissism. Throughout the film, Sid always wants a larger audience for his crimes (even going to the point of creating a TV show called “Death TV”) and, when watched today, it is hard not to see this as some kind of eerily prescient satire of the “attention economy”, social media in general etc….
But, given the controversies of the time, this was probably originally intended as more of a satire of violence in the media – with Sid giving a content warning about how “Death TV” is unsuitable for younger viewers, before cheerfully informing the rest of the audience that they won’t be able to look away. The film’s old-school satire of media violence also extends to the way that Sid often treats reality like a computer game and the way that at least one of his murders is shown to be a “copycat crime” based on an infamous serial killer.
But, saying this, this film is much more of an entertaining action film than a “serious” sci-fi movie. And, in this regard, it works really well. Not only does Parker have to deal with inner conflict about his past and obstructive bureaucracy, but Sid is also a suitably formidable adversary for him to fight too.
The film’s decision to allow Sid to heal by absorbing glass into his body creates a really good balance between making him an unstoppable Terminator-style villain and actually giving Parker a fighting chance against him.
Although this film contains some fairly dramatic and well-choreographed fight sequences and car chases, it’s probably slightly more of a suspense thriller in some regards. Throughout the film, Parker is playing a game of cat and mouse with Sid – with the balance of power between them shifting throughout the film. The film also adds to this by giving both characters very different motivations, with Parker wanting some way to either avenge his family’s death again and/or clear his name and Sid gleefully treating the whole thing like a game.
Even though some of this suspense can get fairly predictable or cliched at times, it’s still really refreshing to see an action movie that focuses slightly more on a suspenseful premise and a carefully-calculated battle of wits between two characters in this age of hollow CGI spectacles.
Plus, unlike more modern and sanitised “PG-13” action movies, the fight scenes and car chases here actually have a bit of dramatic weight to them thanks to the fact that they make heavy use of practical effects and don’t really shy away from the painful emotional and physical consequences of violence.
Still, this film’s thriller elements do come at the expense of story to a certain degree. Yes, the film takes a bit of time to show us Parker’s tragic backstory and to give him some characterisation, but if you’re expecting a more contemplative or cerebral sci-fi thriller (like the original “Ghost In The Shell”), then you’re going to be disappointed. Not only are a few plot elements incredibly contrived, but the film’s pacing is slightly too fast too. Yes, it’s an action movie, but the film’s futuristic atmosphere and characterisation suffers slightly because of the relative paucity of slower-paced and more contemplative moments to counterpoint the frantic action and suspense.
Plus, although this film tries to be a bit of a detective movie – with Parker and Madison visiting crime scenes and looking for clues about where Sid might be – this element of the film feels somewhat under-developed. Thanks to the faster pacing, they often seem to pretty much instantly work out the answers (which are always correct) without the kind of contemplative uncertainty and methodical investigation that makes the detective genre so compelling and suspenseful.
As for the special effects, they’re reasonably good. Yes, the CGI effects look very old – but the film-makers made the sensible decision to only use them when absolutely necessary to the plot, allowing them to serve a narrative/dramatic purpose that helps to distract from their shortcomings.
Still, for the most part, this film makes use of timeless practical effects 🙂 Although the film’s action sequences feel very slightly more “low budget” than other blockbuster films from the age, they are still reasonably dramatic. Not to mention that the film’s practical effects are at their best during the more “sci-fi” moments – such as when Sid emerges from some kind of bio-pod after taking physical form.
As for the characters and acting, this film is really good. Although some story elements are rather cliched and stylised, the main cast handle the material really well. Denzel Washington plays an ex-cop with a morally-ambiguous past who is trying to get both redemption and revenge,with just the right mixture of tragic bitterness and sympathetic “goodness”. Kelly Lynch plays a fairly “realistic” psychologist/detective character and Russell Crowe plays Sid with cartoonishly villainous glee (which also helps to add some dark comedy to this rather gritty and serious film too).
The film’s set design and lighting is reasonably good too. The futuristic version of LA is kept fairly understated (basically just being 1990s LA, but with slicker architecture and a few well-placed pieces of “futuristic” tech), and the film also includes lots of the kind of gloomily industrial and gothic “futuristic” 1990s cyberpunk-style locations that are always fun to look at.
All in all, this is a fun action movie with a bit of a cyberpunk flavour to it. Yes, it’s slightly too fast-paced and a little bit cliched/predictable at times, but If you’re a fan of 1990s sci-fi or just want to see an action movie from a time before sanitised spectacle and over-used CGI became common, then this one might be worth watching.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.