Total Recall, the remake of Paul Verhoeven’s middling 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle which is now being mislabeled as a classic of sorts, stars Colin Farrell as a factory worker who attempts to undergo a memory implant procedure only to discover that he might really be a secret agent. The rest of the film is all about running, exploding, hiding, running, chasing, shooting, exploding, hiding and running. And shooting. Redux.
Directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld) and based on a Philip K. Dick story, it turns out that in the future, Earth has been destroyed by chemical warfare, leaving two opposing geographic factions (forget any tropical vacations because there is literally nowhere to go). Up above is an upscale, beautiful version of Britain, which is connected to a gallows-esque area below named The Colony, a dead ringer for Blade Runner if there’s ever been one.
In The Colony, a world of rain, hovercrafts, numerous Chinatown influences and a lot of grunge, lives Douglas Quaid (Farrell), a blue-collar drone having violently realistic dreams of stormtroopers, bullets and a beautiful woman. He lives in what looks like an exact replica of Rick Deckard’s Blade Runner pad, with his wife, Lori (a fierce Kate Beckinsale, stepping into one of Sharon Stone’s first roles).
Douglas works in a factory with best friend Harry (Bokeem Woodbine), but has a void in his life—nothing ever changes—until he ventures over to Rekall, an underground operation where memories can be implanted to give life a bit of excitement; a much-needed vacation from reality, if you will. It’s here that he first realizes he may not be such a drone after all, but a burrowed-deep secret agent for a resistance faction fighting the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston, typically solid).
It’s no surprise that his wife turns out not to be his wife, but rather a deadly counterspy for Cohaagen, and with a legion of stormtroopers ends up pursuing him throughout the entire picture in an elaborate series of action set-pieces (one, involving a moving series of elevators, is admittedly a lot of fun). Enter Melina (Jessica Biel), who claims to know Quaid from his revolutionary days, guiding him to the resistance headquarters to meet their leader (Bill Nighy)
One might guess with top-flight actors like Nighy and Cranston in the political roles, Total Recall would have explored potential political, economic and social implications of the North-South polarity it posits, but Wiseman is chiefly interested in exploring a barrage of action set-ups, which wear us down after an hour, frame crammed with guns, explosions, breakaway glass, speeding hovercrafts, plummeting elevators, repeat.
Farrell, a superb actor who has the ability to convey both alpha male cockiness and intense vulnerability like nobody’s business, hasn’t much to work with. He looks great, emotes convincingly and can handle a gun or tears with equal panache. The underrated actor, who has broken through with several indie dramas and a Golden Globe in recent years, is in big-budget paycheck mode here, and who can blame him? Flanked by two beautiful women and heavy artillery, he cuts quite an impressive everyman caught up in all of the intrigue, silly as it is.
For all its faults and noise, Total Recall’s production design is truly special at times, even if it does borrow Blade Runner’s rain-soaked, futuristic squalor—a pretty good movie to ape if you’re going to do so—and that keeps Total Recall watchable, along with Farrell’s command.