Middle-America, a few years into the future is the setting for futuristic thriller Cypher. Life on the surface is pleasant, orderly and antiseptic but behind the scenes, powerful corporations are battling for control. The two largest companies, Digicorp and Sunways are rivals in a bitter cold war fought by security departments as ingenious and lethal as the CIA and KGB. This sounds terribly exciting to Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam), a hen-pecked nerd who tries to bring a few thrills into his boring life by applying for a job as a low-level industrial spy for Digicorp. Passing the entrance exams, he's given a secret identity, as sales rep Jack Thursby, and sent on his first assignment, to record the speeches at a series of business conferences.
Staying in anonymous Midwestern hotels and taping presentations about processed cheese marketing, Morgan is thrilled to be living the James Bond lifestyle. He even has a recorder disguised as a pen. His new identity inspires him to live more like the man he fantasises about being, drinking scotch instead of ginger beer and taking up smoking and golf. There's friction at home. His wife, who believes him to be a consultant, is alarmed at the changes in him and wants him back in the nest and working for her father. Morgan Sullivan would have obeyed meekly but Jack Thursby tells her where to go. It's almost as if he's transforming into someone else.
Of course there's a reason for that and it's the first of many, many twists in an imaginatively plotted thriller that starts like a creepy David Cronenberg film, ends like a thinking man's Mission: Impossible and takes a lot of inspiration from Philip K Dick, author of Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. It's also quite funny in a dry, deadpan way. The first half-hour doubles as a well-observed satire of business conferences and anybody who's ever attended one will smile when their secret purpose is revealed. Director Vincenzo Natali, who had an arthouse hit with his debut Cube, proves he can work wonders with a limited budget and pull off a futuristic spy movie as polished as most Hollywood productions. He also shows a rare ability to make a film that will entertain a wide audience without sacrificing intelligence. Expect to see his name attached to something very big before too long. British actor Jeremy Northam makes an effective innocent caught up in a web of intrigue while Lucy Liu as usual plays Lucy Liu but her star turn is appropriate here.
As a puzzle, Cypher is very cleverly put together. I've become an pro at predicting twists and I was surprised by all but the last one, the give-away being some unnecessary information told to Northam by a taxi driver. I like these movies, if they're done well, Identity being another good example. It's fun to think about the plot afterwards, notice the clues you missed and see how all the little pieces fit into place. There's even an explanation for an actor's dodgy accent, which I thought was a nice touch. The only detail left unexplained is why people are smoking in public places in the future. Not likely, unless those malevolent corporations running things are tobacco companies.