Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) can see the future. Specifically, he can see the next two minutes of his own future, although he also has recurring visions of a beautiful blonde (Jessica Biel) he thinks will be the love of his life walking into his local diner at six minutes past eight. Cris looks out for number one - he's turned his precognitive talent into a Las Vegas magic act and a winning streak at the tables! - but he has a romantic side. Every morning and evening at six minutes past eight, he sits at the counter in that diner and he waits.
As much as Cris tries to avoid drawing attention to his ability (he pretends it's an illusion), his ability has attracted some nevertheless. FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) is desperately hunting for a stolen nuclear bomb that intelligence indicates is going to be set off in an American city. She believes Cris Johnson is the real deal and her best hope of finding it. To make matters worse for Cris, the slimy foreign types who have the bomb have learned about the Feds' interest in him and now they want him dead.
Next is nominally based on a Philip K Dick story called The Golden Man but I suspect its real inspiration is a scene in another Dick-based action movie, Minority Report. Remember when Tom Cruise went on the run with "precog" Samantha Morton and she helped him evade the cops by telling him when to duck and when to run? Next takes that concept and extends it to feature length, with Nicolas Cage's character using his clairvoyance as a kind of superpower to stay one step ahead of his pursuers.
Apart from one disastrous mis-step (be patient, we’ll come to that), the resulting film is a surprisingly fun ride, a inventive yet refreshingly old school action thriller that sidesteps the excesses and failures of most of its contemporaries. For a start, it's not two and a half hours long - it clocks in at just over ninety. It isn't all bang-bang-bang. There are three impressive action set-pieces and in between there's enough plot and character development to keep you involved.
This is a clever, playful movie and not only in its action scenes. Screenwriters Gary Goldman (Total Recall), Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) and Paul Bernbaum (Hollywoodland) aren't afraid to digress and put their thriller plot on hold to allow room for comedy and romance and to let the actors breathe. My favourite scene is Nicolas Cage and Jessica Biel's first meeting, at which Cage uses his precognition to test out various chat-up approaches. The action scenes are similarly witty and rely on Cage using his head as much as his brawn.
The star gives a very energetic, good-humoured performance in a role that's tailor-made for him (Vegas sleazball turned hero). No one would have guessed in the mid nineties that the quirky Cage would emerge as the best Hollywood action star of his generation but he has. No other contemporary American actor does this stuff quite as well. Perhaps no action star has ever brought such versatility or acting skill to the table.
Jessica Biel and the ridiculously over-qualified Julianne Moore are perfectly good in their limited roles. I had no problem believing a man could fall in love with Biel at first sight. Seriously though, what was Moore's reason for taking a one-dimensional supporting role like this? Was she nostalgic for making Assassins? For that matter, has Thomas Kretschmann always wanted to play a terrorist on 24?
The CGI effects are kept to a minimum, which will come as a relief to those of you familiar with director Lee Tamahori, who was responsible for the surfing scene in Die Another Day and the train chase in xXx 2. I'd almost given up on Tamahori after the latter film, which was atrocious in every way, but Next sees him back on form, directing muscular, physical action scenes like he did in The Edge.
Now, that mis-step I mentioned! I've put it off long enough to get across my enthusiasm for Next but there's no getting away from it: it’s the ending. Next ends with a twist that's... less than completely satisfying? No, it's absolutely awful and it's going to ruin the film for a lot of viewers. I don't know whose idea it was or what the film-makers thought they were doing but it represents possibly the biggest insult to an audience since Victoria Principal found Patrick Duffy standing in the shower on Dallas. Even if you can forgive it, it's deflating and it sends you out on a downer. Which is too bad because aside from that one (considerable) snag, Next is a fine piece of entertainment. If there's ever been a film crying out for an alternative cut on DVD, it's this one.