Maybe it's all in the context.
Earlier this week, I saw He's Just Not That Into You, which took place in Baltimore and may as well have taken place in the Mojave Desert or on a blank stage; the filmmakers didn't incorporate that city's personality in the slightest. It's a totally generic cityscape, and it doesn't help the already underwritten characters. The other thing that movie did was to drag on past the two-hour mark, obsessively wrapping up even the tiniest scraps of plot thread, or, in other words, flogging a dead horse. But then, the following night, I saw Paul McGuigan's Push. While not a classic by any stretch, I was endlessly impressed by how thoroughly the filmmakers incorporated its Hong Kong location; it feels like they actually spent real time there, and understood some of the local customs. And, at the end, the film merely stops when it gets to a satisfying stopping point, even though there's a bit more plot left to go. (It's the old showbiz adage: "always leave them wanting more.") It felt great, like someone was alive behind the camera, actually thinking about ways to make the movie.
Push stars Dakota Fanning, who turns 15 later this month, as Cassie. She's an example of a "watcher." Much like in this year's The Unborn, Nazis experimented on people back in the 1940s, leaving behind a whole subculture of outsiders, each with a kind of superpower. Cassie can see bits and pieces of the future, which she then draws in her black sketchbook with her white gel pen (the sketches look a bit like a young girl would have made them, but they're quite striking). Enter Nick (Chris Evans, here rising above his usual blandness), who is a "mover." He hasn't trained and doesn't know how to use his skills very well; he tries to cheat in a dice game, but winds up deeply in debt and on the run from local gangsters. That's the least of his troubles, because the agency that controls all these misfits, called simply "Division," has found him.
Division officials -- led by the suave, wine-sipping Carver (Djimon Hounsou) -- are actually looking for an escapee, the beautiful Kira (Camilla Belle), as well as a hypodermic full of special drugs. Kira is a "pusher," which means that she can suggest things and make people do her will (basically the "Jedi mind trick"). Several watchers have seen that, if the agents track down Cassie and Nick, they will find Kira as well. Meanwhile, a Hong Kong branch of bad guys is also looking for the heroes, using a cute, sinister lollipop-sucking watcher (Xiao Lu Li), who draws pictures in her own book. But Cassie and Nick have their own plans. That's a lot of plot, and I've only touched on the smallest edge of it, but McGuigan and writer David Bourla do an admirable balancing job of providing information as well as dishing out a gripping story, without any clunky starting and stalling. (Cassie gives us a quick, narrated rundown during the opening credits, but after that, we're pretty much on our own.) Smarter viewers than me will be able to pick out various logic and plot holes, but I was caught up in other things.
That vivid, palpable sense of place I was talking about is really very important here, because it permeates everything else. With very little apparent in the writing, we get a sense that these characters have lived, off the page, before the movie ever started. The bad guys all seem to understand their own motivations; they're not just "evil" and they're not particularly interested in taking over the world or stealing a billion dollars. Nick spends a good deal of time fighting another "mover," one who has trained extensively, and their personalities enter into the fray; their battles resonate with bonus bits of drama. At one point, a minor character comes in, a "shadow" named Pinky (Nate Mooney), whose job is to hide Kira from the "watchers." He dresses kinda funny and speaks in quasi-Bogart-like dialogue, but from just his small moments on screen, we can sense his entire history; he could almost be the subject of his own movie.I've had my eye on the UK director McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Slevin, etc.) for some time; he has shown a talent for tough little B-grade pictures, even if he occasionally succumbs to the pitfalls of weak screenplays. He's a good action director, and even though he shakes the camera around a bit, he understands and acknowledges the movie's space. This is his sixth feature, and he has stepped up a notch; he has learned to be spontaneous, to use instinct and to use the things around him for additional weight and depth. This is not to say that I was looking at the scenery and letting the film pass me by. No, I would argue that, overall, Push is a better-than-average sci-fi thriller with genuine jolts and unexpected texture. And I'm pretty sure I wasn't Jedi-mind-tricked into saying that.