Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) can see two minutes into his own future. This means he spends most of Next narrowly avoiding things — or not, if he so chooses. It’s an amusing premise for an action-thriller, especially when Cris gets into a fight at a diner, knows when the punches are coming, and casually dodges them in a sort of lazy dance of evasion. Cris also spends most of Next evading the FBI, represented by Julianne Moore in her unsmiling no-nonsense mode; even her hair is just barely red this time. After this and Children of Men, Moore may have done quite enough roles wherein she captures some poor sap and tells him he’s the only one who can save the world, but at least she isn’t playing to the rafters as she did in Freedomland. At certain points, especially when she dons an FBI cap, Moore could be sequelizing her Clarice Starling in Hannibal, without the West Virginia accent or humanity.
But back to the premise, in which Moore’s FBI agent wants to find Cris because she believes he can see into the future and determine when some Euro-terrorists will set off a nuclear bomb in L.A. Sometimes the movie fools us by showing us one possible turn of events, then backtracking and revealing that it’s one of Cris’s visions. Early on, the FBI shows up at Cris’s secret hide-out, where an uncredited Peter Falk — still going strong at 79, God bless him — shoots pool and crustily trades lines with an obviously affectionate Cage, who probably has as many Cassavetes and Columbo moments running through his head as the rest of us.
I’m never unhappy to see Nicolas Cage. He combines the ardent sincerity of James Stewart with the heavy-lidded proto-punk of Timothy Carey (track down a copy of Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner and you’ll have to remind yourself you’re not watching Cage). In Next he gives us a man harassed by his own gift, forced to be a cheesy Vegas magician in order to make a living with his talents. Cris also hits the local casinos, rakes in the cash, and gracefully foils suspicious security guards. Cage takes all this as an excuse to engage in bored virtuosity — Cris is in a rut, and there are no surprises in his life. Then he meets Liz (Jessica Biel), a radiant woman (literally — cinematographer David Tattersall consistently films her with her blonde hair backlit) he’s seen in visions before. The boredom drains out of Cage’s face and he looks at Biel the way he usually looks at his love interests, as if their beauty were killing and saving him at the same time.
Director Lee Tamahori has never really made good on the promise of his 1994 New Zealand debut, the bruising Maori drama Once Were Warriors. He’s been a textbook example of what happens to foreign directors once Hollywood gets its hooks into them: Mulholland Falls, Along Came a Spider, Die Another Day, xXx: State of the Union — the litany just hurts. Next is probably his best work as a Hollywood gun for hire, which I realize isn’t saying much, but at least Tamahori works here with some sense of pride and skill. Among the raft of movies inspired by the fiction of Philip K. Dick, Next isn’t as dazzling as Blade Runner, as funky as A Scanner Darkly, as amusing as Total Recall, or as thrilling as Minority Report. On the other hand, it’s not as dumb as Impostor or Screamers.
On occasion, including the climax (or anti-climax, or non-climax), Tamahori gets to have his cake and destroy it too — again, here’s the possible outcome, and now here’s Cris reacting accordingly. A sequence in which Cris leads an FBI team through the usual industrial hide-out, pausing exactly as long as necessary and then taking a quick left, is a well-sustained triumph of editing and staging. Eventually Cris’s consciousness splits off into dozens of Nicolas Cages wandering around, testing each corner for snipers or assassins. Talk about multitasking. Next is obviously filler before the summer movie season officially kicks off, but its conceptual wit and its merciful brevity help it go down easy.