Director Pete Travis has turned debut screenwriter Barry Levy's Rashomon-inspired script about an assassination attempt against a U.S. president on a visit to Salamanca, Spain, into a dizzyingly complex puzzle that sits comfortably next to such great political thrillers as In the Line of Fire.
The ever-impressive Dennis Quaid raises his leading-man status as Thomas Barnes, a Secret Service bodyguard returning to duty for the first time since taking a bullet for President Ashton (William Hurt) a year earlier. There's more than a little relevance in the story's Spanish setting where the president has arrived for a summit on the global war on terror. At noon, rifle shots penetrate the president's chest as he takes the podium in a public square where an American news team captures the shocking scene. Seconds later, a bomb blast reduces the area to bodies and rubble.
The clock returns to noon at 10-minute intervals that allow us to see, in chunks, the circumstances from the various viewpoints of a suspect, an American tourist, a terrorist and the president before splitting off into an energized climax that links the pieces together with fast-twitch precision.
We're introduced to the characters' varying intensities in the context of the two sudden eruptions of violence. The president goes down, Barnes sees a man run on stage and stops him with football tackle that flattens the suspect. Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), a lone American tourist, searches the scene with a video camera that captures a more subjective version than the one being blasted across the airwaves by TV news producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) from the relative comfort of her trailer.
Barnes and his partner Kent (Matthew Fox) go back a long way together, and the way they interact throughout becomes a homing beacon for the film's chiaroscuro study of internal motivation versus external attempts at fulfilling allegiances of duty.
Everything about Vantage Point is unexpected. The way the film both indirectly and directly addresses terrorism, betrayal and politics is unconventional. Plenty is left up the imagination. When the camera shifts from ground level close-up views to distant aerial positions, we're drawn to the place and characters in a personal contemplative way. And there are chase sequences. Not just any chase scenes, but chases that invade your heart and your throat. Before becoming a filmmaker, the Manchester-born Travis worked his way through film school as a motorcycle courier, and you can see his low and fast perspective in these scenes.
What Travis has done is nothing short of create a new kind of American action film that feels European in the same way that William Friedkin's French Connection did. Travis makes Vantage Point an all-inclusive association between cultures without stressing the issue. All agendas are personal, and every character commits with utter devotion. The movie sweats out its story, and we gravitate to Dennis Quaid's character to cuss and fight on our behalf.
Vantage Point is the first great action thriller of the year, and the first great political thriller in a long while. Grade: A-
Opens Feb. 22. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.