There are many things I don’t understand about the sci-fi world and story of VIRTUOSITY. It opens with Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) in a Captain Panaka cosplay outfit chasing a killer through the business district, where everybody is in a suit carrying a briefcase, like they’re in The Matrix. It does turn out to be a virtual reality simulation and Parker turns out to be a prisoner, though he was formerly a cop until he accidentally killed an innocent(ish) journalist while killing the guy who killed his family.
But what is the reason for this simulation? I guess it’s supposed to be for training? But then why are they training prisoners? I guess because it’s still in Beta testing. With its current calibration, getting killed in the virtual world can cause the player to go into convulsions and die in real life. (You hear that, Wachowskis? See if you can take that idea and do something better with it.)
The “players” like Parker are lifted off the ground in rigs, so they actually spin around and run in place and stuff, which is kinda cooler than just sitting there. All the other people in the game are lovingly programmed artifical intelligences who exist in the real world in the form of a cartridge with a big crystal inside it. And the killer they’re trying to stop today is SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe from THE QUICK AND THE DEAD and NO WAY BACK), who’s sort of like that guy Serpentor in GI JOE: THE MOVIE because he’s a super serial killer created by combining profiles of 200 different people, which we’re able to see includes John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Saddam Hussein, Billy the Kid, David Koresh, Mussolini, Ted Bundy, some more obscure murderers I had to look up, and Matthew Grimes (Christopher Murray, LEPRECHAUN: BACK 2 THA HOOD), the left wing terrorist who killed Parker’s wife and daughter.
I guess my biggest questions are about SID 6.7. First of all, what was their excuse for creating him? If he’s supposed to be to train people to profile a serial killer, it’s the same problem as MINDHUNTERS: catching a made up serial killer in a game couldn’t have much application to catching an actual one that exists. And also the training just seems to be about chasing him through the city, so why does it matter if he’s the ultimate combination of real life cannibals, necrophiles, rapists and genocidal dictators? Is that any different from a guy that’s just programmed to run and take hostages?
Plus, if they have to use existing personalities to create his personality, where do those personalities come from? Did they have a brain scan of Hitler?
Also, why would that mix of psychos and freaks make him into a suave, blue suit-wearing guy? It doesn’t seem like the math works out.
And maybe the biggest question, what’s up with SID’s creator Lindenmeyer (Stephen Spinella, THE JACKAL, RAVENOUS), who seems to be openly evil without any of his co-workers noticing? He purposely creates this evil AI, then tricks his horny co-worker Clyde (P.T. Anderson and Stephen Sommers regular Kevin J. O’Connor) into making it into a deadly robot that he thinks is gonna be a sexy lady. Then he’s not subtle in his salivating over the murders he causes. I mean I guess it means he’s a psychopath, a serial killer or at least a deadly saboteur, because he purposely unleashes terror and gets off on it. That is his only motive. But it’s weird how many people don’t notice. He makes almost no effort to hide it. After he lies to Clyde…
…he just waits for him to be part way across the giant room before he turns SID back on on a giant screen and starts talking to him about it. The guy is still in the same room as you, dude!
The technology that brings SID from the virtual world to the real one is silly but at least more thought out than the end of TRON LEGACY. The diamond personality chip thing is incubated with nanobots that grow inside an egg-shaped machine and form the body. The nanos are apparently glass-based, so if he gets an arm chopped off or something he can touch a window and regenerate. After getting hit by bullets he munches on the shards of a broken windshield to heal. Since he’s made up of tiny particles it seems like he could do some T-1000 shit too, but if so he’s not that creative.
He does fancy himself an artist though, a parallel with Parker, who spends his time in prison drawing on his cell with chalk. In a big ridiculous scene SID takes over a dance club, records various hostages while he terrorizes them and performs a “symphony” of screaming and crying samples using pads that kind of work like electric drums and kind of like a theremin. The whole thing is considerably less awesome than he believes it is, and kind of awkward because he has so many people in his control for so long using just one gun. I mean, it’s possible he could do it, because nobody wants to get shot. But they outnumber him by so many it seems weird that nobody makes a run for it or tries to tackle him, they just all bawl their eyes out the whole time and do whatever he says.
All these people being killed in a cheesy rave-inspired night club, and with Traci Lords as the DJ, really made me want to turn it off and watch BLADE instead. There’s a movie where the ’90s dance music seems period instead of funny.
Later SID creates much smaller scale mayhem by crashing a stolen car a couple times and declaring it a “symphony of collision!” He also giggles alot and does flips and handstands when escaping. Basically, this is an embarrassingly corny villain. Mark my words, this Russell Crowe will never amount to anything.
There’s quite a supporting cast. Kelly Lynch (ROAD HOUSE) is Denzel’s traditional platonic white female companion (a criminal psychologist writing a book who becomes his partner), William Forsythe is his boss, William Fichtner and Costas Mandylor are there, and also Louise Fletcher from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.
…and even more than the usual disdain for all the dumb assholes talking to him, including his old boss, Forsythe, in a rare totally-nice-guy role. Can you believe that? He plays the chief or whatever who tries to give Parker chances to redeem himself, and who believes him when nobody else does.
Oh yeah, there’s a weird, forced part of the movie where SID sets him up by grabbing a hostage on the subway and hanging off the side with her, taunting him about not being able to risk taking the shot. He does take the shot, and apparently hits the woman, killing her. There are a bunch of witnesses who don’t know at first that Parker is a cop, but especially after they find that out it should be obvious what happened: he tried to shoot the hostage taker and (allegedly) missed.
Instead, a woman yells “He did it in cold blood!” And he gets taken off the case because everybody believes that he just killed some lady for no reason.
Like many ’90s movies, VIRTUOSITY tries to be a commentary on society’s lust for violence and the media’s exploitation of that. “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” SID’s only motivation is to get attention and be famous and shit. We’re always seeing him on screens as Parker follows the trail of recordings left in his wake. They always track him by guessing where he will go to get on TV or something. He hijacks a TV forum on immigration which is predicted to be widely watched (?), renames it “Death TV,” adds a cheesy skull and bones logo, and shoots a guy in the head live on camera. There are real time charts that show that, somehow, the amount of “Viewers On-line” instantly goes way up, to his delight. And Parker upsets him by cutting the phone lines, which makes the viewers disappear. I don’t really get it, they act like it’s TV and he calls it TV but I guess it’s supposed to be some kind of web thing?
The silliest but most enjoyable and time-capsule-worthy part of this theme is that they have an Ultimate Fighting Championship event going on in town, and SID decides to go there to kill people in the crowd and get on TV. He causes some mayhem, licking a girl’s ear and then throwing her boyfriend:
Later he gets into the Octagon and scares Ken Shamrock with his weird arm stump nano-gore.
UFC was in its third year, was still a tournament, and still seen as disreputable. Oleg Taktarov and Tank Abbott fought their first UFC fights that year, and Shamrock had two title fights (against Taktarov and Dan Severn) in UFCs 6 and 7. The futuristic event in the movie is UFC X, which in real life ended up happening in 1996 in Alabama. So I guess this was set only one year in the future.
Since UFC was not at all mainstream at that point, it’s not portrayed accurately at all and doesn’t have any fan-pleasing cameos or anything like that. Yeah, Shamrock is in there, but only briefly. They don’t shoot him like they expect anyone to be familiar with him. You get to see the old logo of the guy with the giant fists, and the Octagon of course, but they barely show what’s going on in there (looks like some kind of battle royale), and for some reason the crowd does a weird, rhythmic chant through the whole thing like it’s some kind of post-apocalyptic death brawl. I think they’re saying “Kapow!” It also serves to make the Parker-chasing-SID action even more confusing, because they’re fighting through the crowd, SID is firing a gun and throwing people over ledges, and it seems to change from shot to shot whether everyone in the crowd is in a panic or whether nobody notices any of this. The announcer keeps telling everyone to remain calm while the crowd continues their chant unencumbered.
After SID runs out the exit, followed by Parker, some random guy in the crowd elbows some other guy in the head. UFC fans were bloodthirsty brutes, according to this movie, and the UFC owners were okay with that! They didn’t care if they were allowing their name and image to be ham-handedly used as a symbol of the decline of western civilization. Any publicity is good publicity.
I noticed there’s one scene that relates a little bit to a theme we’ve seen in a surprising number of Summer of 1995 movies: the colonization of the United States (as seen in POCAHONTAS and THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD). The guest on a televised immigration forum (Miguel Najera, also in William Friedkin’s RAMPAGE) is decked out in what appears to be Native American garb and brings the immigration issue back to the beginning, saying “As you speak I’m reminded of another group of immigrants: the Puritans.”
(Unfortunately he’s the guy that gets shot.)
But of the other Summer of ’95 movies this would have to be most comparable to JOHNNY MNEMONIC. Both have a pretty preposterous idea of future technology, including virtual reality, but JOHNNY’s is more intentionally exaggerated. This one’s supposed to be in the near future, so they try to ground it. The result is not that much more believable but also way less fun.
As an action movie it’s arguably a little more effective. It seems like a bigger budget, and it does have one really badass flashback scene where Parker gets a limb blown off in an explosion but still comes after Grimes like a one-armed Terminator.
But actually looking more like Arnold in PREDATOR. And a part where SID jumps into the ceiling. Special-effects-wise it’s not as show-offy as you’d expect. There are a couple now-cheesy morphs and squiggly CG tentacle things, but not that many. One shot that’s pretty silly but probly ahead of its time follows Crowe’s mega-acting face as he drops backwards into a crowd and slams onto cement.
But I prefer the stylized virtual reality animation of JOHNNY MNEMONIC, and that armless scene is not enough to top Takeshi Kitano hiring Dolph Lundgren dressed as Jesus, or Ice-T talking to a dolphin. VIRTUOSITY might be “better,” but it isn’t as fun or imaginative as JOHNNY.
But I gotta respect Denzel for trying a different type of movie here. Too bad it didn’t pan out. I’m not surprised this is a mostly forgotten movie. I’ll mostly forget it too. See you for the 40th, VIRTUOSITY.
VIRTUOSITY played at the Sitges International Film Festival, but so did MORTAL KOMBAT, so let’s not get too excited. When VIRTUOSITY opened to poor reviews 20 years ago, WATERWORLD maintained the #1 spot at the domestic box office. VIRTUOSITY’s weekend gross was behind two other movies opening that week, SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT at #2 and BABE at #3. At least it did better than the Daniel Stern comedy BUSHWHACKED, which opened at #10 that week.
Ultimately it made about $24 million, and the budget was reportedly $30 million. Still, I’m surprised they never made an unrelated DTV sequel. That seems like something they would do, doesn’t it?
Director Brett Leonard will forever be connected with virtual reality, because he did this and LAWNMOWER MAN. It quickly became a dated concept, with video games progressing so fast that their first-person-POV became much more impressive than anything they’d been doing with goggles and gloves and shit. But weirdly enough the concept has recently been reborn with that thing the Occulus Rift and the thing where you put cardboard on your iPhone. Now technology is more prepared for creating three-dimensional environments, so it actually is gonna become a thing now. We know this because STAR WARS is doing one.
VIRTUOSITY failed to launch Leonard into the A-list, so he went into Imax movies (T-REX: BACK TO THE CRETACEOUS, SIEGFRIED & ROY: THE MAGIC BOX 3D) and then DTV (MAN-THING). Also he did a low budget horror called FEED and HIGHLANDER: THE SOURCE.
Screenwriter Eric Bernt also was headed into HIGHLANDER sequel territory – he got a story credit on HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME. He also wrote ROMEO MUST DIE, BACHELOR PARTY VEGAS (also director), the remake of THE HITCHER, the remake of THE ECHO, and one episode of Z Nation (not a John Hyams episode). Personally my favorite thing written by him is his one credit before VIRTUOSITY, SURVIVING THE GAME.
Two years later Crowe was in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and finally became a superstar in the U.S. He was nominated for best actor Oscars for THE INSIDER and A BEAUTIFUL MIND and won one for GLADIATOR, but he is best known as Jack Knife in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS.
Washington had already been a big deal, nominated for Oscars for CRY FREEDOM and MALCOLM X, won one for GLORY (supporting actor). He has since been nominated for THE HURRICANE and FLIGHT and of course won best actor for TRAINING DAY. He’s currently in his Old Man Action Movie period and will be doing a sequel to THE EQUALIZER.
Washington and Crowe reunited in 2007 for Ridley Scott’s AMERICAN GANGSTER, a way better movie though with less virtual reality.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.