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Die-hard American moviegoers don’t cry out for capers with a conscience. Flashy producer Jerry Bruckheimer (The Rock, Con Air, National Treasure) has proven that pyrotechnics build better box office than morality plays. This is why Inside Man was an anomaly: Spike Lee blended New York’s racial politics into a genre picture and stumbled onto a compelling action film with Big Ideas. With Déjà Vu, Bruckheimer smartens up, but it’s Denzel Washington that does the thinking. Even as one-dimensional ATF agent Doug Carlin, a lesser version of his fleshed-out Inside Man NYPD officer, Washington brings a pathos to the film that turns a sci-fi shoot-’em-up into subtle commentary on FEMA-sponsored humanitarian disaster. The first film shot in post-Katrina New Orleans, Déjà Vu has a Minority Report–esque conceit—the federal government uses time-bending technology to prevent a terrorist attack before it happens—that is overshadowed by the human face Carlin puts on the Big Easy’s downfall. Val Kilmer’s squinty FBI agent, Adam Goldberg’s motormouth computer nerd, and Washington’s halfassed, time-travel romance with a murdered woman (Idlewild’s Paula Patton, cleverly introduced via “surveillance” footage) don’t demand as much attention as director Tony Scott’s breathtaking footage of the mini-Armageddon that is NOLA’s 9th Ward. Why can’t a government that spends billions on a War on Terror deliver bottled water to Crescent City refugees? Scott never asks, but the question haunts the edges of his movie. When Carlin, Déjà Vu’s only black man in a position of power, confronts fidgety white federal superiors, you might as well call him Ray Nagin. Even a singular chase sequence—Washington pursues Carroll Oerstadt (James Caviezel, creeping us out as a Timothy McVeigh analogue instead of as Our Lord Jesus Christ) through the present by following him through the past—doesn’t dilute this hurricane-force allegory of city-over-country. Almost in spite of itself, Déjà Vu is a political picture, and God bless it. Thoughtful yet entertaining action cinema is too often camouflaged within Tarantino/Rodriguez–sponsored bloodfests. 2006 taught us that Gore is just as interesting as gore; with Denzel’s help, Déjà Vu wisely splits the difference.

—Justin Moyer