‘Vantage Point’

You gotta get a gimmick.

But having one’s not enough. Once you’ve got a gimmick, you’ve gotta know what to do with it.

And while "Vantage Point" definitely has its gimmick, it doesn’t always know how to capitalize on it.

Echoing everything from the small screen’s "24" to Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-winning 1950 classic "Rashomon," this topical thriller focuses on an apparent assassination and terrorist attack taking place on a wired world stage.

The gimmick? You guessed it: "Vantage Point" explores what seemingly happened, and what really did, from a variety of perspectives.

Of course, not all the perspectives — and not all the performers representing them — are created equal.

And "Vantage Point" isn’t quite clever enough to keep us guessing all the way through.

It’s enough to keep us diverted, perhaps, and definitely distracted, although the movie’s central gimmick can’t overcome its central problem: the fact that "Vantage Point" doesn’t add up.

From moment to moment, it’s reasonably entertaining as it shifts gears and perspectives, striving to keep us on edge and off-balance.

Yet none of the pieces quite fits. It’s as if we’re trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle that seems to form a picture — yet none of the pieces go together smoothly, even when we’ve put them together.

Then again, disjointed confusion certainly reflects the experiences of the characters caught up in "Vantage Point’s" action.

We’re in Salamanca, Spain (Mexico stands in for Spain for much of the movie), at the opening of an international anti-terrorism summit, with the U.S. president (William Hurt) leading the lineup of dignitaries.

Among the Secret Service agents protecting him: Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), just back on the job — and understandably jumpy — after recovering from a bullet wound meant for the chief executive himself.

Also on the job: unflappable Secret Service agent Kent Taylor ("Lost’s" Matthew Fox), TV reporter Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana) and her dyspeptic boss, Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), who’s far from thrilled that Angie’s focusing on the summit’s protesters rather than its international participants.

That changes in a flash, however, when shots ring out, felling one of the leaders. An instant later, a massive explosion rocks the outdoor plaza, triggering mass chaos as Secret Service agents scramble to apprehend the apparent shooter (Eduardo Noriega of "The Devil’s Backbone" and "Open Your Eyes").

Fortunately, a friendly American tourist (Forest Whitaker), trusty video-cam in hand, has captured the entire incident. But he’s got more important business at hand: looking after a little girl (Alicia Zapien) who’s been separated from her mother.

As "Vantage Point" hurtles along, other viewpoints widen the perspective, introducing everyone from conspirators (including "The Bourne Ultimatum’s" Edgar Ramirez) to U.S. officials (Bruce McGill, James LeGros), all trying to promote, and protect, their cause.

Throughout, screenwriter Barry Levy keeps piling on the vantage points, following one character, then another, as the movie aims to keep us guessing.

But Levy never solves the basic problem of the movie’s gimmicky structure: Its shifting perspective means we’re shortchanged on almost every ingredient that leads to a superior thriller.

Character development? No time for that. Establishing the villain’s motivation? Why ask "why," when that would reveal the identity of a character "Vantage Point" tries mightily to keep secret?

And you can forget about sustained suspense. Director Pete Travis does.

Given "Vantage Point’s" narrative structure, he can’t really do anything else. All those shifts leave him no time to build tension, except in short bursts, making shock and surprise his sole options.

Fortunately for him (and us), "Vantage Point’s" high-octane premise and solid cast help compensate for its structural shortcomings.

A veteran of British TV making his big-screen debut, Travis cranks up the action, hoping the breakneck, breathless excitement of car chases, hair’s-breadth getaways and countdown-to-crisis moments will distract us, so we won’t notice how utterly un-credible "Vantage Point" truly is.

Still, it’s up to the actors to try and sell these questionable goods. And sell they do, whether it’s Weaver’s trademark don’t-mess-with-me power or Hurt’s statesmanlike smarts.

After collecting an Oscar for "The Last King of Scotland," the affable yet soulful Whitaker seems downright grateful to be back in nice-guy territory, even though some of his character’s actions strain credulity — and shamelessly push the audience’s emotional buttons.

Quaid, meanwhile, demonstrates his ability to mesh acting and action, ably conveying his character’s jittery determination to do his duty — even when that duty becomes a living nightmare.

"Vantage Point" would have been a lot more compelling if it had concentrated on one vantage point: his. But sometimes it’s just easier (for the filmmakers, if not the audience) to stick with a gimmick, even when it doesn’t make much sense.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0272.

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