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Equilibrium

Itís some time in the near future. The survivors of a third World War believe that the human race wonít survive a fourth, and have taken drastic steps to ensure it doesnít happen. Deciding that the root of all conflict and war is human emotion, they have created out of the ashes a new nation Ė Libria Ė whose citizens are required to inject doses of an emotion-suppressant called Prozium every day. Enforcing the edicts of Libriaís leader, Father (Sean Pertwee), is a new arm of the law, the Grammaton Cleric, tasked with hunting down and executing ďsense offendersĒ.

Cleric John Preston (Christian Bale) is the best of the order; able to know an offender is feeling almost before the offender does. Within the first five minutes of the film, he employs his orderís dual-pistol-wielding martial art, the Gun Katas, to spectacular and deadly effect, dispatching an entire room of armed sense offenders quickly and efficiently. When his own partner, Partridge (Sean Bean), is caught concealing a book of poetry, itís Preston himself who pulls the trigger.

The morning after Partridgeís death, Preston accidentally drops his dose of Prozium, and when the nearest depot is unavailable, he skips his dose. His burgeoning feelings are fanned by a recently arrested, aggressively emotional sense-offender, Mary OíBrien (Emily Watson), and he begins to doubt his mission, so much so that he stays off the Prozium. Unfortunately, Prestonís new partner, Brandt (Taye Diggs), is keen to advance his career, even if it means uncovering Prestonís sense crime, and when Preston accepts an assignment from the head of the Cleric, DuPont (Angus MacFadyen) to infiltrate the underground resistance to Libria, he faces his most difficult challenge yet: bringing down the Tetragrammaton and destroying the very society that created himÖ

From its conception to its execution, Equilibrium is a hybrid: from genre (action, science fiction, Dystopian drama) to casting (British, American) to production detail (American crew, German locations). Itís an ambitious and unique film: ambitious in that it attempts to straddle three genres, and unique in that itís largely successful in its attempt. Itís director Kurt Wimmerís sophomore film (his directorial debut being the little-known One Tough Bastard); Wimmer is mainly known for writing the screenplays for the (dodgy) film adaptation of Michael Crichtonís SF novel Sphere and the re-make of The Thomas Crown Affair. Wimmer also wrote the screenplay, which borrows liberally from such genre fiction as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but wraps it up in such a glossy, action-packed shell that you wonít really mind. Let it be said that there are some plot-holes, one of which potentially wrecks the plot, but this film was carrying me along so well that I only noticed it afterward, and when it was pointed out to me. Quite surprisingly, the plot also refuses to buy into some of American cinemaís usual story contrivances (and I canít say more for fear of spoiling a plot point or two).

Despite Christian Bale sharing billing with Taye Diggs and Emily Watson, itís really Christianís film, with easily twice the screen time of his co-stars. Christian gives a strong, consistent and near-flawless performance, keeping pace with the emotional transformations during the film. Diggs (whom I loved in Chicago, even though he had a minor role) and Watson are both capable in their parts, and after seeing her as the (comparatively) reserved yet no less intense Elise in Gosford Park, itís a very effective contrast to see her as the fiery Mary OíBrien here. (Itís interesting to note that, in a film seemingly dominated by English cast, the two top-billed English cast members, Bale and Watson, have American accents.) It's also worth noting that Sean Bean nearly steals Bale's thunder, even though he's out of the film within a quarter of an hour.

But Equilibrium is advertised and billed as an action film, and in that regard it succeeds quite soundly. It has drawn comparisons with The Matrix, and will probably do so even more now that Reloaded and Revolutions (especially as Keanu Reeves' priestly garb in those two films is similar to Equilibriumís Cleric uniforms), but such comparisons are somewhat unfair. Equilibrium is obviously a lower-budget film, but excels in its limitations; while The Matrix indulged with its computer-driven ďbullet-timeĒ slow-mo and frozen pans in order to dazzle the viewer, Equilibrium keeps its computerised effects out of the fight scenes, using slow motion sparingly and mostly to heighten the actionís emotional subtext (only one of the filmís ďoh wowĒ moments is slowed down). The speed of the action is almost comparable to the smooth choreography of Hong Kong action flicks, and the Gun Katas (created whole cloth by Wimmer himself) succeed in their goal of bringing a fresh take to the ďtwo hands, two gunsĒ clichť. Youíve never quite seen gunplay like this before (the opening gunfight and its stroboscopic presentation is jaw-dropping, especially when you realise that it's not a digitally-driven effect), and as the one who demonstrates them the most, Bale gives the Gun Katas and swordplay in the film a fantastic efficient grace (itís unfortunate, though, that one of the more spectacular manoeuvres is performed by his stunt double).

Although Equilibrium has a brain, itís not a particularly thought-provoking film, due to its tripartite nature: it's dark, and brings a new idea or two to the genre of Dystopian fiction, but it's too busy supplying action to really explore its concepts; the Gun Katas bring a new spin to the action, which is fantastic, but it's compressed to allow time for plot and character development; its plot and characters are intelligent and compelling, but the film's unrelenting Dystopian darkness can be off-putting to those looking for casual entertainment.

Even so, itís an entertaining film, carried both by the action and the empathy we feel for the at-first unfeeling Preston; a result of the strength of Christian Bale's excellent physical and acting performances. Although Equilibrium isnít more than the sum of its parts, itís quite equal to them.

Although it never saw theatrical release in Australia, your Video Ezy should carry rental copies (as of this review, our local branch had some in New Release). With any luck, itíll be released to retail some time soon. Perhaps befitting Equilibrium's low-budget status (it was given the bare minimum promotion in the States for fear of turning a European money-maker into an American money-loser), the DVD isn't an extravaganza of special features. Thereís the obligatory trailer and TV spots; the making-of, Finding Equilibrium, is barely five minutes long; the section on the Gun Katas consists of a handful of CGI images of various Kata positions (apparently culled from the gunkatta.com fan website), and the Jump to Fight system seems a decorative redundancy, considering that itís a selection deeper into the menu system than the Scene Selection function (and behind a confusing "Are you ready to enter the Underground?" yes/no switch that needlessly and counter-intuitively divides the special features into two sections).

On the other hand, although neither of the two commentary tracks (one by Kurt Wimmer and another with Wimmer and producer Lucas Foster) feature any of the cast, the latter manages to be informative and hilarious; Kurt and Lucas not only get on well but also playfully trade barbs with each other.

An interesting side-note which is probably irrelevant to many, the Region 2 copy I bought in England sticks in exactly the same place on both my and Danís all-region players. Itís not entirely fatal, and can be fast-forwarded past, but itís a jarring flaw. Iíve yet to try a local (Region 4) copy.

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