What’s a ‘Re-View‘? For starters it is either a horrible pun or a horrible abbreviation. For us it means we’re watching old shows or films and reviewing them. We’re ‘re-viewing’ them, or viewing them for the first time and reviewing them. Or even ‘retroactively-viewing’ them if that’s better for your pun hating soul.
The Internet is home to many contemporary reviews for contemporary shows and films. However older properties have not been given this treatment as often as perhaps they deserve. I say perhaps because we’ll see exactly what they deserve in the process. Enjoy.
Generally speaking, films about an undercover cop (or FBI agent in this case) have a degree of tension. The protagonist is forced to make hard choices. They have to do truly reprehensible things to maintain their cover. They also grow close to their targets and development an emotionally damaging attachment. However, none of these things really happen in Imperium. None of these things have to happen of course, but something does have to replace them.
Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a fresh faced FBI agent and a reclusive genius and so on. His efforts at the agency are generally ignored by his peers, until a handler for undercover operatives spots his talent. The handler, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), imbeds Foster with a group of young neo-Nazis. The hope is that he’ll be promoted up the chain to more dangerous fascist groups, in particular a secret one that has access to a dirty bomb.
This is all rife for potential. Daniel Radcliffe has truly left his most famous role behind here and is completely absorbed into both sides of his role. Toni Collette balances Zamparo’s sense of compassion and manipulative tendencies into a believable person. The problem is that writer/director Daniel Ragussis doesn’t know what to do with any of this.
From a directorial stand point Imperium suffers in general. It betrays itself as the work of a first time feature director. Scene coverage is typically shot-reverse shot without much imagination. In the occasional ‘tense’ scene Ragussis enjoys slowly zooming in (or out) close ups of Foster’s face. The problem is that this approach is employed in almost every scene of this type. It also draws attention to the camera and is somehow more distracting than an inappropriate Vertigo-shot. However, the directing is still essentially competent. The editing is sound enough to keep the plot moving without major hiccups. Competent direction can be redeemed by good acting and a good script. However, Imperium does not have a good script. It is not a bad script either. Like the directing, it is merely competent.
First of all the dialogue in this is somewhat overwritten. It’s also, again, essentially competent. Everyone makes sense and the meaning of what people say is consistent. But the dialogue is ham-fisted. When Foster first meets the group he is infiltrating I began to cringe. He was overplaying his love of fascist teachings and literature. It came off as try hard. I felt this was him fucking up in attempting to learn the ropes of undercover work. It wasn’t, it was just badly written dialogue as it turned out. This somewhat melodramatic dialogue plagues the film. On rare occasion it works in portraying the pretentious and intellectualised justifications used by racist thugs, but mostly it comes off as over the top. The problems with the script go deeper still…
Set up and pay off. Scenes ending with a climax that leads to the next scene. The protagonist making choices that take him to a place of no return. Coincidence is only justifiable when it hinders the protagonist rather than aiding them. These are all fairly simple screenwriting rules that this film has forgotten. There are no experimental or risky or inventive filmmaking choices to replace these fundamentals. Early in the film Foster makes an enemy out of a young neo-nazi with rage problems. This antagonist quickly shows Foster that he knows where he lives. The rest of the gang back Foster in this conflict and this antagonist is embittered. Later Foster leaves the gang (without telling them) and joins a rival fascist faction. The gang is angered by this when they discover it. And then they’re never in the film again. At no point do they burn down his house or beat him up or accidentally discover his undercover status as a result of attempting the above. This lack of payoff is emblematic of the script as a whole.
The group Foster leaves this gang for is reduced to a red herring. Their leader suspects Foster is a mole, but his concerns are satisfied by a simple conversation with Foster. The ultimate villain is revealed to be the only other faction in the film, one portrayed somewhat sympathetically (the leader is a family man) and has seemingly no plot purpose in the film until the reveal, which in turn makes said reveal very predictable.
Ultimately Foster isn’t forced into any horrid rituals to prove himself. He doesn’t have to assault anyone. He insults someone implied to be his friend, but this someone wasn’t seen before this scene or after. There are no stakes or consequences. Foster is constantly offered a way out of the mission by Zamparo and when he takes up the offer (after overplaying his hand with a suspect, also without consequences) the true villain reveals himself to Foster in the next scene. Foster has a falling out with Zamparo and it is fixed in their next scene together. Both of them are at risk of the FBI pulling their mission, but that never really comes to a head. Imperium plays lip service to consequences, but never follows through. When Foster betrays the family of the villain, the family that took him in and gave him a sense of belonging, there is no consequence beyond a guilty stare from Foster followed by an optimistic montage. After his mission Nate just happily accepts his new status as a good FBI agent.
If I was to pick one scene to define the film it would be one from the first half. Foster has had his first meeting with the Nazi gang. There were no hiccups to it and he was essentially unmolested in the encounter. He then returns home and looks up the effects of a dirty bomb on human beings. We’re treated to a montage of Foster looking upset set to interspersed imagery of suffering civilians and white supremacists. Foster looks traumatised. But he hasn’t been undercover yet… He hasn’t done anything to be so stressed yet. The dramatic music of the scene plays this as more than just fear of what is to come. The scene makes no storytelling sense and is directed in a clichéd manner, but Radcliffe also acts the hell out of it.
Imperium is a balance of good and bad. For every good piece of acting there is overwritten dialogue. For every interesting development there is unearned investigative progress. For every piece of conflict there is immediate resolution. For every moment of genuine tension there is a bizarre directorial decision.
All that being said the film still has a serviceable story. Things progress logically enough from A to B to C. One cares about the characters. And the finale is genuinely thrilling in a way that is rare for a crime film: the conflict is resolved without violence and still holds weight and tension. Imperium is alright. It’s not as good as it could be, nor is it as bad as it could be. It’s a watchable and entertaining film that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Unfortunately it could have also been more. This is a subject matter rife for storytelling. Young angry men being driven to evil by a combination of isolation and tribalism is interesting. However this film has nothing to say about that either.