"Vantage Point" reduces global terrorism to a Rubik's Cube suitable for an evening's entertainment. If that doesn't make you vaguely ill, by all means take this thriller for the shallow, gimmicky "ride" it aspires to be. You can marvel at the cluelessness of Hollywood writers and directors later.
The gimmick in question is the old "Rashomon" trick - repeating the action through the perspectives of different characters - updated to an age of post-9/11 dread. The setting is Salamanca, Spain, where US President Ashton (William Hurt) is about to open a peace conference with a speech in the Plaza Mayor. We watch the ensuing developments from the news truck of producer Rex (Sigourney Weaver, acting all Faye Dunaway in "Network"): The president is shot, a Secret Service agent appears to bring down a suspect, a bomb goes off somewhere else in the city, and then the Plaza podium itself detonates in a massive explosion.
Click. Rewind. Now we're seeing the events from the point of view of that Secret Service agent, Barnes (Dennis Quaid), as he radios in a suspected shooter in a hotel window overlooking the plaza, brings down the suspect - who turns out to be Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), part of the mayor's security detail - and reviews video camera footage shot by an American tourist played by Forest Whitaker. Boom goes the podium. Click. Rewind. Now we're following Enrique. And so forth.
America's in worse shape than I thought if William Hurt's the president, but never mind that. The rewind/retell gambit quickly grows tiresome - we're groaning by the fourth narrative reboot - and, anyway, the device isn't used to question the nature of truth (as it was in "Rashomon") but to slowly reveal a nefarious terrorist conspiracy to . . . but I can say no more. Suffice to say that Hurt gets a lot more screen time than it at first appears.
Weaver largely disappears after her opening bit, though, and "Vantage Point" eventually tosses its own gimmick to settle in for a long, hectic game of foil-them-Arabs, with agents Barnes and Taylor (Matthew Fox of "Lost") crashing cars through the crowded streets of Salamanca after the Evil Mastermind (the gifted French-Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui), his beauteous but soulless accomplice (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), and their various dupes and traitors.
The result is a movie that's both clever and stupid - an interesting feat. Puzzle addicts may enjoy the way the pieces of Barry L. Levy's script snap together, if they can overlook the times he forces pieces that don't fit. (The Evil Mastermind can massacre thousands of innocents but swerves to avoid a little girl? As they say on "Saturday Night Live": Really?) Action fans will like the explosions. Those of us who follow the news may be alternately tickled and appalled at a movie that reduces current events to the level of an old Warner Brothers anti-Nazi flick.
I guess it's comforting to believe the forces of Islamic extremism can be quelled by one true-hearted American Secret Service agent. Or it used to be, back when Clint Eastwood was saving the world in "In the Line of Fire." That was 1993, though. This is now, and even the hero doesn't seem convinced: Quaid's scowl is screwed on so tight here he looks constipated. Maybe he tried to digest the script.