Should I Watch..? Virtuosity
What's the big deal?
Virtuosity is an action sci-fi film released in 1995 and is notable for starring two future Oscar winners, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. The film follows similar cyberspace territory as director Brett Leonard's earlier film The Lawnmower Man (1) - a former cop is forced to pursue a simulated supervillain who escapes into the real world and begins a horrific crime spree. As well as its two future A-listers, the film also serves as the cinematic debut of Kaley Cuoco who would go on to find fame in TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory amongst other projects. Released to a fairly lukewarm reception, the film was considered a bomb after it failed to recoup its $30 million budget in the US.
What's it about?
In the near future, LA law enforcement undergo training in a virtual reality simulator and we see two such men - Parker Barnes and John Donovan - attempt to track down a serial killer known as SID 6.7, a digital composite of over 200 serial killers. During their training run, Donovan is killed by SID and Barnes is removed from the program after shooting his way through civilians to safety. Barnes, a former cop now serving a prison sentence for killing a fugitive and innocent bystanders, is sent back to jail by the VR project's director Commissioner Deane and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation by Doctor Madison Carter. Deane also orders the simulator's programmer Dr Darrel Lindenmeyer to shut the system down for good.
Unfortunately, one person doesn't take too kindly to the project's cancellation - SID is told by Lindenmeyer of the program's closure and escapes into the real world, killing his creator in the process. In an attempt to recapture SID before LA is brought to its knees, LAPD Chief William Cochran has no choice but to offer Barnes a deal - if SID can be captured or killed, Barnes is a free man. But Barnes discovers that there is much more to SID than meets the eye...
Lt. Parker Barnes
Dr. Madison Carter
Dr. Darrel Lindenmeyer
Comm. Elizabeth Deane
Release Date (UK)
31st May, 1996
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
Beneath the mid-90s gloss and ridiculous story, there are actually several things to admire about Virtuosity. Crowe's role, the sort of psycho uber-baddie you can picture Dennis Hopper playing, is a fabulous foil for Washington's good guy - excessively flamboyant, always one step ahead and a Glasgow smile away from being Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (2). He even wears a purple suit! Add into the mix his silicon body which is able to regenerate every time he eats glass and SID 6.7 is certainly a memorable villain you won't forget anytime soon.
There are some interesting ideas here within the script but they are unfortunately swamped by the film's breakneck speed. The movie rattles along at a frantic pace, delivering scene after scene of heavy-duty action and semi-futuristic shootouts. While the ending is rarely in doubt, you enjoy the ride while it lasts - the movie throws in a couple of cameos including Michael "Let's Get Ready To Rumble!" Buffer and even teases a twist in the tale, although you'll spot it easily enough. You're intelligent enough to reading my review, after all.
- The name SID is an acronym for "Sadistic, Intelligent & Dangerous" and among the psychological profiles that comprise his own are Saddam Hussein, Benito Mussolini, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, Ted Bundy, Jesse James, Billy The Kid, Peter "The Yorkshire Ripper" Sutcliffe and Aileen Wournos, the subject of the film Monster (3).
- It would be another 22 years before Washington and Crowe would be reunited on screen, in the Oscar-nominated American Gangster (4).
- The song "The Photograph Kills" by 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts is heard in the movie - in fact, the music video was shot on set in between takes. 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts was Russell Crowe's own band at the time.
What's not to like?
It's fair to say that most sci-fi ages about as well as a bowl of old fruit and there is little in Virtuosity that is going to feel futuristic these days. From the weird VR- headset that has the body hanging freefall beneath it to the lurid neon fashions everyone in the Nineties thought we'd be wearing now, the film has not aged well at all. Digital effects are particularly awful and considering how important cyberspace is to the entire premise, this is a disappointment.
Almost as disappointing are the performances of Lynch and Washington especially, who fade into obscurity against Crowe's hammy baddie. Lynch is ill-served by a script that gives her nothing to do besides looking glamorous alongside the lead but Washington should have done better. His role could and should have been an interesting one - he has an artificial arm for one thing plus his family were murdered by a serial killer, giving him plenty of motivation but he comes across as someone with all the intensity of some gamer playing Call Of Duty. You never really get behind him and as a result, the film fails to engage with you very much. It's a pity because for all the mid-90's silliness, there's a decent film here trying to get out.
Should I watch it?
Virtuosity is saved from being a complete bust by three things: Crowe's lunatic performance, a handful of good ideas in the script and the fact that you can't really hate Denzel Washington because it's Denzel Washington. Take away these things and what's left is a lurid, loony tale of virtual characters escaping cyberspace and only one man being good enough to stop him - the sort of mindless dross we've all seen before. It's no classic but it is diverting enough to be one of those guilty pleasures you rarely tell people about.
Great For: unintentional laughs, Crowe's capacity to appear in pantomime, Throwback Thursdays
Not So Great For: luddites, anyone who hasn't the foggiest idea what "cyberspace" is, Washington's CV
What else should I watch?
The Nineties were an interesting time for film-makers, confused as to the ever-changing world of technology beyond the Hollywood hills. Films like The Lawnmower Man and the thriller Disclosure (5) would feature crudely animated sequences in "cyberspace" where digital heroes would clash with omnipotent foes. I blame the runaway success of Disney's Tron (6) which opened up digital landscapes and characters in a way nobody had ever seen before. Its revolutionary style and look is instantly identifiable and unique... well, until Tron: Legacy (7) came along nearly twenty years later.
Washington and Crowe are both now huge stars that can pick and choose their roles seemingly at will. Both would go on to win Oscars for leading roles (for Training Day (8) and Gladiator (9) respectively) and display an impressive range of films between them. If you want a couple of their movies that went under the radar and I suggest you try the remake of 3.10 To Yuma (10) which pits Crowe's Western hoodlum against Christian Bale and the under-rated Out Of Time (11), a low budget thriller with Denzel that is much more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox