Scene Dissections: A Scene-Eating Crowe

How does a film where Denzel Washington is a rogue and imprisoned cop with a metal arm and Russell Crowe is a psychopathic AI residing in a silicon-based body not fully capitalize on either premise? How does a pseudo-tech noir fizzle out and only deliver a barely booted-up routine 90s action thriller? It’s entirely possible that they built a rig that was not powerful enough to render a truly breathtaking film.

Virtuosity is trash. I say that with all due respect to Washington and Crowe. They are doing their damnedest to give compelling performances, and though it is bad, it still hits the mark of “bad but fun.” The perfect weekend time killer. The kind of movie you watch before the movie you really wanted to watch.

Despite being presented as a sci-fi film, it’s pretty soft on that front. Most of the sci-fi concepts get introduced very early on but then get dropped out of frame as the story moves along from one beat to the next. If you excised the sci-fi elements entirely from the film, you wouldn’t even notice much of a change. That’s how little impact it has beyond Crowe playing a sentient computer program on a murder spree. Be it rewrites, tampering, budget restrictions, or all of the above, but it ends up playing out like a standard cat/mouse thriller with little more than an interesting gimmick to get your ass to the theater.

There was something in the water because 1995 not only saw the release of Virtuosity but Johnny Mnemonic and Judge Dredd, two films that are also garbage but execute their sci-fi/dystopian elements with more conviction. I do wonder if the producers of Virtuosity looked at another Sylvester Stallone sci-fi vehicle, Demolition Man, released just two years prior, and said “This, but dumber and not nearly as campy.” Virtuosity is low-tech Demolition Man. They both concern a disgraced cop who is imprisoned after a botched hostage situation and then are brought into a world where their greatest foe is now unleashed and wreaking havoc in grandiose manner on an unsuspecting public.

However, just because one feels like a copy of the other doesn’t automatically render it redundant. It’s still worth checking out because there’s a lot of missed opportunity and potential that if you held out for a remake or a better version to come along and realize those things, then it would vindicate its existence. Crowe plays what is at first a computer program that is a composite of nearly every criminal known to law enforcement meant to run training simulations. He gains sentience and manipulates those simulations, eventually being brought into the real world through a silicon-based synthesis and now he’s free to do as he pleases.

Crowe’s performance is playful and feels at odds with the rest of the film’s straight-forward style. It’s campy but feels muted. Like he had to pull back because someone said “Play it like The Joker but you’re not The Joker” and then never gave him any notes other than “laugh like you don’t know what that is.” And if he’s not The Joker then why is he in a purple suit? I don’t know, this film feels half-baked at times. For example, Crowe’s character, SID 6.7 (Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous… fuck, who names things like this?) is an amalgamation of notorious criminals meant to train law enforcement agents for any potential scenario they’ll encounter in reality. One of SID’s first kills when he’s in the real world is in the style of the Manson Family murders, with “pig” scrawled in blood on the walls of the home. After that, you would assume we’d see more of the same, but no, that conceit is dropped and SID instead decides to just be a goofy but seriously dangerous villain, but still pretty damn goofy.

Would this film have been better if it followed that beat throughout the film, having Crowe imitate all the famous crimes logged in his program and leaving clues to his next crime along the way? Probably. The goal was to always have SID’s personality be a mirror of a terrorist who served as Washington’s foil when he was still on the force, giving him an opportunity at redemption. I don’t think it would have made a difference if we had more murders as homage along the way, but I think if the beats were more consistent leading up to SID’s inevitable arrival at comic-style supervillain, we’d be able to forgive the minor defects. What I think would have made for a better film is if the kills themselves were flashier and not so… rote, for lack of a better word.

If SID is a program designed to be a composite of the most notorious and vile criminals and their crimes, who becomes sentient and then ends up having a body to now commit crimes in the real world, then why do most of his kills consist of using a gun? Not to glorify violence, but SID’s crimes barely live up to his histrionics, and thus, it feels like we wasted a perfectly mad Crowe performance against an equally mad (but in a different sense) performance from Washington. A symphony of collision indeed, but damage was minimal.

Scene in Question

SID ends up at a public market and starts tuning each television on display in a shop to the news reporting his recent exploit where he took a club hostage and he takes glee in his burgeoning fame. While tuning the TVs, another patron gets infuriated with SID because he wants to watch a broadcast of a UFC fight. SID tunes it to the news, the other guy tunes it back and gets cross with SID. Bad move because SID then grabs him and snaps his neck, dropping him stone dead to the floor. This is caught on video by the store owner who smiles and waves to SID, who reciprocates and then leaves. Later, Washington’s character Parker Barnes arrives to investigate and sees the UFC broadcast. He deduces SID is going there as he’s wanting to commit a crime that will be televised.

SID arrives at the stadium and I want to tell you, UFC in the 1990s was fucking wild. I grew up a wrestling fan in the 90s and there would be ads sprinkled in the pages of the various wrestling magazines I’d pick up. I never gave it any thought because I didn’t know what it was and the logo they used looked too comical even for me.

This scene completely justifies my dismissal of UFC as legitimate then, now, and forever.

There’s fast cuts as the camera shows us the fans, the fighters in the cage, and Michael Buffer looking like he’s giving a sermon. What’s interesting to me is that it looks like there’s multiple fights going on at once. I don’t know if this was common for matches or just an exhibition or sparring, but I kept seeing Ken Shamrock fighting two different guys in these camera shots. Bad editing or Shamrock is just that dominant, it’s not the most wild part of this.

It’s the crowd. Everyone in the crowd is chanting “P-pow! P-pow!” over and over, while also pumping their fists in time with the chants.

Was this an actual thing done at UFC fights?

Was this encouraged? Look, again, I’m a pro-wrestling fan and chants at shows can range from the fun to the stupid, but this is something else. Do Dana White and Joe Rogan sit in a private box at UFC events going “pow! Pow pow!” to each other? How is it that UFC was ever taken seriously?

Aside, though, from all exhibits of my dismissal, it is one of the very few scenes that holds consistent with the film’s conceit as dystopian. There’s a splash of grittiness to the locale, making the venue look like a dressed-up warehouse and not an ordinary stadium. As UFC was in its infancy (just founded in 1993), it looked like the deathsport of the future. It doesn’t date the film at all, as UFC is still wildly popular and MMA has become more legitimized with various promotions having been established in its rise. It’s rather prescient. 

Symphony of Collision

There’s a mild sense of disappointment when I watch this movie. It’s a serviceable crime thriller, but it can’t keep up with the science fiction flourish it teases early on. After SID is birthed into our reality, the sci-fi tech dwindles as though the prop department budget diminished proportionally. Baubles that sample live sound pass for futuristic instruments in the same world as VHS camcorders and CRTs. The few times you’re reminded that SID is just a synthetic organism, when his body twitches contorts like a buffering image slowly loading to definition, it’s janky. Outside of that, there’s the matter of pacing and escalation. SID goes from crime to crime, each leveling up the number of witnesses and reach. He craves validation as well as attention, this is repeated throughout as his AI becomes ever more dominated by the terrorist that killed Barnes’ family. It soon becomes personal and anything related to the dozens of other monsters in SID’s programming become an afterthought. 

I know there’s a better film in here. It’s just bogged down by not committing one way or the other to the concept and its premise. There’s a promise that’s never fulfilled of a techno-thriller that can be amplified tenfold by its star power. Instead, it’s an also-ran that falls behind the other films I mentioned at the top of this article. Its peers are more well-remembered, regardless of their aptitude, because they went all in on their conceit. Virtuosity comes off like a 2D platformer in a polygonal 3D world. Sure, it is an okay way to kill your time, but compared to more exciting fare, it will quickly fall lower on your stack.

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