Overview: A sharp, young FBI agent infiltrates white supremacists in hopes of stopping a domestic terror attack. Lionsgate Premiere; 2016; Rated R; 109 minutes.
A Maze of Shortcuts: Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) chews her gum incredibly hard. Anyone who has seen more than a dozen 1980s and ‘90s action and thriller films knows what it means when a high ranking official chews gum hard. Zamparo is a straight shooting, no nonsense asskicker who gets things done. It’s a characterization tool as established and basic as mustache twisting or walking calmly away from explosions. And so, it’s a bit strange to see this brand of shorthand used in a film of such imperative subject matter with contemporary implications. But it isn’t the film’s only cheap trick; in fact, Imperium, the new film from Writer and Director Daniel Ragussis, is a maze of self-defeating narrative shortcuts.
MarySue: Imperium starts with a quote that testifies to the power of words to unite and the slow reveal that the quote’s source is Adolf Hitler would seem to indicate its prefacing a film concerned the ways in which identity politics can be twisted to create violent extremists. This expectation is reinforced in an opening act that sees Nate Foster, played by Daniel Radcliffe (What If?, Swiss Army Man, and a major film series that I won’t mention to respect Radcliffe’s clear desire to separate himself from the role), first capture and then sympathize with and defend a would-be terrorist driven by extremism. Immediately afterward, when the bureau learns of the disappearance of illegal Caesium-137, Foster is quickly convinced to go undercover for the first time to infiltrate a culture of dangerous white supremacists, pursuing little more than a hunch. Given the early evidence of his susceptibility to persuasion, one might expect the character to be used to investigate the manner in which dangerous nationalism manifests within the mind of an individual to push that person into a culture of hate and violence. Instead, from the moment Nathan shaves his head, he becomes a bit of an operative MarySue (it’s one name when character infallibility is unleashed against backwoods, white power ideology), always one step ahead of every situation with neither his physical being or mental togetherness ever really at risk.
A Lack of Tension: That isn’t to say that Imperium has any obligation to serve as a cultural essay (though, some might argue with the current state of affairs in the American election, exchanging thematic curiousity toward white nationalism to allow for it to be used as a tool of unexplored narrative entertainment is a bit reckless). But Foster’s unbroken chain of witty victories over the story’s every attempt to endanger him also deflate any tension that might serve to make a successful genre-simplified story formula. When his knowledge of “the cause” is tested, when he’s backed against a backwoods reservoir with armed militants questioning his identity, and when his FBI cover is blown, Foster simply speaks himself out of suspicion in a few snappy sentences.
Overall: Radcliffe does what he can with material that absolutely refuses to test him, and many viewers might find the straight observation of the numerous American hate factions to be informative (if nothing else, the script is at least thoroughly Wikipedia-tested), but outside of that, Imperium loses itself to a lack of ambition.
Featured Image:Lionsgate Premiere