As a critic, watching Edison Force is the equivalent to having an out-of-body experience. The critic in me hovers at a distance, knowing I shouldn’t recommend a film with such a silly plot and such over-the-top violence. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a bad film: characters crippled by clichés, a story that simultaneously indicts fascist police states and fetishizes the violence such states breed, a pat (yet exceptionally violent) conclusion, and Kevin Spacey in a laughable hairpiece. Something about it just works, though, so even as the critic part of me rolled its eyes, the rest of me sat on the edge of my seat, hoping everything would work out for the characters. This despite the fact that I knew where the plot was headed after the second scene, and I knew the film wouldn’t have the balls to go for a tragic ending.
Pollack (Justin Timberlake) and Deed (LL Cool J) act as our entry points into this world. Pollack is a young, idealistic journalist who doesn’t work hard enough to please his tough-as-nails editor, Moses Ashford (Morgan Freeman), who fires Pollack for finding a good story that’s mostly conjecture. The story: that Deed lied to a grand jury to protect a crack dealer (Damien Dante Wayans), who also lied to the grand jury about what actually happened during a gun battle between his dealer pals and two members of the First Response Assault & Tactical (FRAT) team, one of them being Deed.
Pollack doesn’t know two things: that his story is true, and that Deed is merely the Ethan Hawke to his partner’s Denzel Washington. Lazerov (Dylan McDermott) is a homicidal maniac prone to fits of rage, all bloodshot eyes and blotchy skin. He’s not right in the head, but FRAT’s okay with that. Like the Parallax Corporation, they specifically recruit shiftless psychos for what amounts to a private army funded by private corporations and overseen by corrupt politicians, including D.A. Reigert (Cary Elwes) and FRAT commander Tilman (John Heard).
Wallace (Kevin Spacey) works for Reigert and is complicit in the FRAT scandal without liking it much. A former investigative journalist, he’s become a cog in a broken machine and feels powerless to fix it. So does Ashford, a Pulitzer winner reduced to running a neighborhood paper because, as he puts it, “I was never known for making the smart move.” Ashford sees potential in Pollack and wants to browbeat him into becoming the sort of journalist he used to be. When Lazerov corners Pollack and his girlfriend (Piper Perabo) in an alley and beats both of them to a bloody pulp (putting her in a coma), Pollack doesn’t need browbeating—he knows he’s on the right track, and he wants to take FRAT down. Wallace, an old friend of Ashford’s, sees the opportunity to shed light on the scandal ruining his city. The three form an awkward alliance, but they’re missing a piece of the puzzle: someone on the inside who can get them real insight into how FRAT literally gets away with murder.
That’s where Deed comes in. Nobody ever explains why FRAT would take him, but he’s different from the others. Most FRAT candidates had mile-long rap sheets before joining the military or the police force. Nobody in FRAT has ever been married or had a close relationship with anyone. Deed is different. He sees the police force as just a job, a way station to earn money while he learns a trade and can work for himself. He’s also engaged to Maria (Roselyn Sanchez). They realize he’s their best shot at learning more about FRAT, but he’s naturally reluctant. The stakes continue to get higher and higher, betrayals and new alliances surface, and the whole thing descends into a surprisingly satisfying orgy of violence that prominently features a flamethrower.
The problem, if one can call it that, is that Edison Force is not mindlessly entertaining enough to work as popcorn fodder. Despite its absurdity, it’s not really a fun film. Writer/director David J. Burke is intent on tackling a serious issue in a serious way, and he constructs a solid thriller with spare parts left over from numerous other films. Part of me wants to criticize him for that, but he puts together those old parts and makes a slick, economical film about problems endemic to big cities that are worth exploring, even if they’re explored in a way that involves graphic depictions of men getting pulverized by heavy, metal objects.
Despite the worthy subject matter, the film lacks the bravery of its own characters. Midway through the movie, Ashford explains that the rights of the press are protected in the Constitution specifically because they are obligated to speak out against what’s happening in their city—tyranny. Granted, Edison Force is not a documentary and Burke is not a member of the press, but he sets the film in the fictional city of Edison, populated by fake corporations and a fake political hierarchy. He doesn’t even call the SWAT team by its rightful name, and although I imagine a lot of that has to do with libel laws, it lacks the verisimilitude of something like The Wire, which takes on identical subject matter using a real city’s real problems. I’m sure it’s unfair to compare this film to The Wire, but it’s hard not to when it tries to tackle many of the same issues.
Early in the film, Ashford also admonishes Pollack for not getting the other side of the story—FRAT’s point of view. The film does a similar disservice, portraying all the politicians and police (except Deed) as unrepentantly corrupt without digging into how things in Edison got that way. A few throwaway lines pay lip service to the idea that FRAT dramatically reduced crime in the city, partly by solving crimes but mostly by scaring the shit out of criminals, but the film never dives into that moral gray area. It never considers the notion that an illegal police state might indeed come from a place of misguided but hopeful idealism instead of cynical corruption. It’s a small problem of hypocrisy, but the film still worked for me in spite of that.
Maybe it all goes back to casting. With the possible exception of Timberlake in the lead, everyone here does outstanding work. It’s easy to think that a bunch of stars in a direct-to-video film would be phoning it in and giving career-worst performances, but everyone—including Perabo in a tiny, tiny role—seems remarkably committed to their characters. Even Heard, McDermott, and Elwes try to give their characters shades of gray not present in the script, which perhaps enhances what could have been stock villain roles. Timberlake himself isn’t bad, but this was his first lead role and it sort of shows. While the other cast members disappear into their roles, Timberlake never lets go of the feeling that he’s ACTING instead of embodying Pollack.
If this review seems wishy-washy, it’s because I have some reservations about a movie I can objectively recognize as a failure. Emotionally, though—it worked for me. It’s not a revelatory experience, but the film absorbed me quickly and held my attention throughout. When I reached the end, I didn’t feel let down or annoyed. Doesn’t that qualify it as a success?