What would you do if you could see two minutes into the future? Buy your lottery tickets right before deadline? Head for the track? Become a do-gooder, thwarting muggers and aborting accidents in the nick of time?
For Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage), the hero of the wildly ridiculous and thoroughly entertaining thriller Next, it's more complicated than that. A Las Vegas magician - his nom de lounge is Frankie Cadillac - Johnson has been blessed, or cursed, with clairvoyance since childhood. He uses his psychic talents onstage, mixing things up with amusing illusions to gain an occasional astonished gasp from the half-filled room. He plays blackjack to make extra money - but never so much as to call attention to himself.
And he tries to keep out of trouble.
Next, ably directed by Lee Tamahori, from a screenplay adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story called "The Golden Man" (Dick: the hardest-working dead writer in show business), is about what happens when a band of Eurotrash terrorists get hold of a nuclear device, and a tough little FBI cookie played by Julianne Moore gets the idea to enlist Cris Johnson to save the day. With her keen aim and acumen for sizing people up, Moore's Agent Callie Ferris can sense that this guy with the magic act is for real. Really.
There's something else about Johnson: the one premonition he has that extends beyond his two-minute time limit is of a beautiful woman coming into a Vegas coffee shop shortly after 8 o'clock. He doesn't know what day she makes her fateful entrance, though, so he seats himself at the counter daily, waiting for the love of his life. That would be Liz (Jessica Biel), who teaches kids on an Indian reservation, and who finally does walk in and slide into a booth.
The pickup scene - in which Johnson foresees a number of disastrous rejections before hitting on the right course of action - is charming. It also provides a practical demonstration of how our hero can project himself into the near-future, then come back and rearrange it for the better.
Just what the FBI needs - "a pattern of advanced awareness," as Agent Ferris puts it - when the country is in imminent danger of nukedom.
Cage is cool, quiet and a touch melancholy as Johnson - carrying the burden of his gift with a brooding brow and a ready punch line. (What did the Zen master say to the hot dog vendor, he asks Liz. "Make me one with everything.") Moore is full of squinty seriousness as the hardcase FBI gal, barking orders and deploying her handgun to lethal effect. And Biel is, well, Bielesque, down to earth and ethereal at the same time - it's easy to see why Johnson has been waiting for her to walk into his life.
If only he can keep her there, while the FBI hunts him down, with the bad guys - who smoke cigarettes and speak French - hot on his trail, too.
Next, like any self-respecting action pic, features a final shootout on a port city's docks, where ships unload contraband and armed stuntmen can fall from catwalks and the tops of freight containers. There are explosions, and hails of bullets, but luckily for us - and luckily for the FBI, and millions of innocent citizens - Chris Johnson can see them coming.
Next *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Lee Tamahori, written by Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum, based on a story by Philip K. Dick, photography by David Tattersall, distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins.
Cris Johnson.......................... Nicolas Cage
Clare Ferris.......................... Julianne Moore
Liz.............................................. Jessica Biel
Irv................................................. Peter Falk
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters