While watching the loathsome “Push” I couldn’t help but wonder why people were so hard on last year’s satisfying actioner, “Jumper.” Certainly there was plenty of disbelief to swallow with Doug Liman’s hyperactive film, but it had a thrilling pace, top-notch special effects, and delved into a sci-fi mythology with some sympathy for the bewildered audience. The similarly plotted “Push” is opposite in every way: a ruthlessly tedious film that doesn’t make a lick of sense, is captured with cringing cinematography more at home on a skateboard accident compilation tape, and peppered with confused performances. People, give “Jumper” a second chance.
When Nazi medical experiments spiraled out of control, a race of superhumans were born, presented with a wide array of powers that survived for generations. Living in Hong Kong, “Mover” Nick (Chris Evans) is struggling to control his telekinetic abilities. When Cassie (Dakota Fanning), a teen “Watcher,” arrives at his door with word of a crucial briefcase about to fall into the wrong hands, it triggers the wrath of The Division, a secret government organization led by “Pusher” Henry (Djimon Hounsou), who needs the case to complete their ultimate weapon: Kira (Camilla Belle), a Pusher with exceptional powers. Facing the wrath of an Asian crime family made up of thugs with various powers, Cassie and Nick try to formulate a complex plan to thwart Henry and keep the contents of the briefcase safe.
Pushers, Watchers, Movers, Bleeders, Stitchers, Shifters, Wipers, and my favorite, the wacky Sniffers (they furiously smell objects to learn their history); “Push” shoves the viewer into screenwriter David Bourla’s murky universe of powerful freaks, much like a typical labyrinthine superhero mythology, only without the necessary groundwork to make it all mean something to the causal viewer. “Push” is ambitious yet completely useless, doggedly trying to summon an epic tale of mental warfare by gathering a dense narrative teeming with unfamiliar terms, unexplained powers, and undefined allegiances. Confusion is the picture’s ultimate weapon, and it wields it very well.
Perhaps “Push” is as coherent as a comic book once placed under the microscope, but director Paul McGuigan doesn’t invite the closer inspection needed to best appreciate the tortoise-paced antics. Using flimsy handheld camerawork and goofy fish-eye lenses, not to mention bathing the film in an aggressive $7.99 buffet neon lighting scheme (Hong Kong deserves a better representation than this film offers), McGuigan makes “Push” amateurish and trivial, when clearly he’s lusting for something intricate and unpredictable. Unfortunately, “Push” spends too much time explaining itself to actually reach any sort of pulse, with long, dry gaps between magician-cheeseball combat sequences to dig itself further into absurdity.
The cast isn’t of much use to “Push,” with the lion’s share of the drama handed to the undesirable thespian triangle of Evans, Fanning, and Belle. Unable to transform the clunky screenplay into a special sci-fi cadence, the cast appears paralyzed, unable to deduce how to play Bourla’s extravagant displays of nothing. To them, it’s more about playing dress-up and surviving strange plot turns (Nick and Kira, on the run from certain doom, and they have time for sex?) over organically conveying the halfhearted “Push” world. Further injury is inflicted by Hounsou, who should never be cast in a role that requires heavy exposition. The African actor is a fine screen presence, but not an ideal monologist.
“Push” boils down to a basic level of interest. Nick, Cassie, and Kira are evading death’s door at every turn, yet without a welcome mat laid out for this sludgy stew of sci-fi make-em-ups, who cares? McGuigan tries to grab the audience with flashy visuals (the violent climax is a hilarious brawler, incorrectly butched up with blasts of rainbow smoke), but the effort is useless without something substantial to hang the eye candy on. “Push” is an empty calorie extravaganza and demands a crooked concentration it doesn’t earn to sufficiently piece this mess together.