One of my favorite films over the past fifteen years is American Gangster. The film is far from perfect but Ridley Scott’s sweeping saga detailing the rise and fall of drug kingpin Frank Lucas is endlessly watchable, due in no small part to the performances of Denzel Washington as the previously mentioned criminal and Russel Crowe as the cop who takes him down. It’s basically two films in one as we move back and forth between Denzel’s Frank Lucas amassing his empire along with a growing number of enemies and Russell’s Richie Roberts slowly learning of his counterpart’s intricate dealings and methodically building a case. Sadly, these two screen icons only meet in the film’s final scenes, but their chemistry is palpable.
1995’s Virtuosity gave us the first glimpse of this undeniable screen pairing. Director Brett Leonard gave us a somewhat conventional but surprisingly entertaining futuristic thriller, with Washington as the cop and Crowe as the bad guy(s). The film is set in 1999 and the film starts with the first of a few “gotcha” moments. We see Washington in a futuristic purple leather get-up and soon realize everything Is not what it seems. After an atypical shootout in a sushi bar, Crowe is about to get the upper hand only to see Washington dissolve into thin air. Back in the real world, we see Washington being used in a virtual reality experiment that is being developed for law enforcement training.
Subsequently, we discover Washington is an ex-cop and current convict named Parker Barnes who is the best match for the program’s chief villain SID 6.7 played by Crowe. SID has been programmed to be the ultimate bad guy and has been cybernetically nurtured by compiling over 200 nefarious personalities including Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and surprise, surprise, the terrorist that just happened to murder Washington’s wife and daughter. When the higher-ups start to get nervous about SID’s evolution, his designer (Stephen Spinella) finds a way to make SID organic and unleash him on the real world.
Of course, Parker Barnes is the only one that can stop this technologically enhanced foe which prompts his immediate release from jail, along with a chaperone in the form of psychiatrist Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch). A cat and mouse game ensues with SID wreaking havoc in the real world and Barnes doggedly pursuing with the possibility of facing off with the madmen that killed his family. Thankfully, the film has a logical explanation for SID not killing Parker in every encounter: since SID is interactive, he just wants to keep playing and against his most formidable foe. There are shades of Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker in The Dark Knight. Additionally, because SID is hard to destroy being silicon-based, he regenerates often by eating glass.
Everything leads up to a classic rooftop showdown between hero and villain, but the film still has a few surprises up its sleeves when it plays with what is the real world and what is the virtual world. In the end like most good science fiction films, Virtuosity works because of the performances of both Washington and Crowe who are at the tops of their games.
In a precursor to Training Day, Washington gives us a complex hero who is haunted by the death of his family and barely holding on mentally. It’s a risky performance and I guess audiences weren’t ready for this side of Denzel this soon. And in a precursor to L.A. Confidential, Crowe goes all out truly embodying SID as a virtual kid in a candy store. He exudes menace and wit buoyed by endless energy and endless personalities.