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Michael Garberich

It would be too easy to begin by pandering to the title’s seduction and turn the not-so-clever psychological phenomenon into a not-so-clever rhetorical roast. But might the jury please acknowledge a familiar dose of ballistic destruction by notorious bang ’em uppers Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott, producer and director, respectively, who have previously collaborated on similar films such as “Top Gun” and “Enemy of the State.”

“Déjà Vu”
STARRING: Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Paula Patton
PLAYING AT: Area theaters

True to the times, their recent atrocity is an act of terrorism on 543 passengers (many of them Marines) aboard a New Orleans ferry just off Canal Street on the morning of Mardi Gras.

That the film mentions three of the most recent tragedies in United States history (Oklahoma City, 9/11 and Katrina) is punctual. But the clumsy way it squeezes science fiction, romance and superficial existential philosophizing into its threadbare action-lacked plot is incorrigibly unsynchronized with contemporary American culture.

Such appeals to nationalism feel more like a pure act of capitalism than an attempt to gauge and reflect a country recently reacquainted with the concept of vulnerability.

The opening sequence is a dialogue-free montage of smiling, enthusiastic faces charging onto the ferry. A group of sailors plays festive, patriotic brass notes on the deck and traces of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” brush the soundtrack. As an attendant observes the tightly packed cars, the tune’s volume intensifies until the source of Brian Wilson’s ironic bequest is located: an abandoned, locked car with the keys in the ignition, the music blaring and the backseat loaded with explosives.

Though it’s unlikely that our liquid-conscious airline security mentality would permit a car with poorly concealed homemade bombs aboard a ferry carrying Marines and their families, it’s not patently improbable, and is, in fact, the least problematic aspect of this messy script.

Denzel Washington plays Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Doug Carlin, the untamable vagabond with uncanny senses and a Zen-like aura of unquestionable certitude. He’s bred from the hands-on CSI line that gathers evidence by equal parts sifting and sniffing, the type that’s never encountered a red herring (not that it’d stop him anyway), who’s only impediment is that nasty space-time continuum.

The time travel is “Déjà Vu’s” sole selling point and doubly serves to give the film the gimmicky feel that is characteristic of single-hinged marketing strategies.

Agent Pryzwarra (a sweetly plump Val Kilmer) recruits Carlin to help him and his team of government geniuses (headed by the typecast Adam Goldberg) capture homegrown terrorist Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel). In the name of surveillance, they have managed to fold time into a traversable sheet via the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, i.e. wormhole.

If your Matrix is glitching and you’re confusing Denzel Washington for Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s because “Déjà Vu” tries to work the same idea as “Donnie Darko.” When the charred corpse of a beautiful woman washes ashore, it’s for her, whose death is implausibly linked to the attack in a sequence of annoyingly convenient plot twists, that Carlin travels back in time. Love, it seems, is the only true justification for quantum mechanics.

“Déjà Vu” might be a slight of psychological hand, it might be the United States government’s latest solution to homeland security, or it might just be the foggy resonance of an obstinately repressed memory from a film in your past that you’d rather not remember.