FEATURING: Mark Polish, Dianna Agron,, Justin Bartha
PLOT: Chandler, a medically enhanced superspy on a mission, falls into a coma and his wife Tess tries to bail him out.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is art-house wannabe fodder for the hypothetical and stereotyped millennial audience who eat a bowl of sugar-frosted molly every morning for breakfast. It is strange by the measure of misguided and incompetent work, but true “weird” should be an intentional choice.
COMMENTS: I’ve gotten in trouble on this site for reviews like Breakfast of Champions and The God Inside My Ear, so I’m going to clearly ask up front: take Uncle Pete’s word for it and have faith in me this time. Against the Clock is not, again, not a movie. It is a tragically aborted fetus that came close to showing vital signs, but went wrong. What went wrong was a special effects team, fresh off an online Adobe Premier Pro course, who masturbated furiously all over the film with strobe-light-paced jump-cut CGI scored to literally every noise from a stock sound effect CD, followed by a director who subsequently fed the film stock through a wood-chipper until it was confetti and glued it back together with flypaper strips. With these chaotic monkeys turned loose on the production, the attempted movie has no room left for story, characters, dialogue, or a cubic centimeter of breathable oxygen in which to make clear its artistic statement. Picture Max Headroom on cocaine, turned loose with a camera for 100 minutes in the seedy side of The Matrix.
If you thought Oliver Stone’s style in Natural Born Killers wasn’t hyper enough, if Run, Lola, Run stressed your attention span, or if you felt The Wall just did not indulge itself in enough psychedelic show-offs, then get ready to put on your boogie pants and dance. Not to compare Against the Clock to those greater efforts; those works use trippy imagery and sugar-rush effects as tasteful seasonings on a competent recipe. Against the Clock unscrews the cap and dumps in the whole bottle.
Nevertheless, if you take the movie at its own terms and approach it with the right frame of mind, it does have some kind of artistic vision. But once you’ve become used to an experience that’s like viewing a pinball machine from inside the ball while the bumpers and flippers whack it around—and taken enough Dramamine not to barf—the movie’s novelty wears off. Rather than amping me up, the ADHD editing has the opposite effect: it lulls me into a relaxing daze, like watching a fireplace. This movie would make a pretty screensaver. It even held my cat’s attention for a record ten minutes before he wisely curled up in an adjacent chair for nap time, an option I envied as I contemplated running a Monster energy drink through my espresso maker to create the frame of mind this movie seeks.
As far as script reconstruction science can piece together, Against the Clock is a spy thriller wherein CIA agent Kelley Chandler (Mark Polish) rips off Johnny Mnemonic with another brain experiment plot. Chandler is assigned to take down a cyber-terrorism ring by the Director (Andy Garcia), who provides the only movie’s unintentional humor by delivering his lines in an improbable mix of a Dixie and Italian accents, blending Vito Corleone with Foghorn Leghorn. Chandler stumbles and keels over, a victim of either the medical experiment gone wrong or assassination attempt. Now in a coma (coiled in glowing tubes for some reason), his wife Tess (Dianna Agron), who also happens to be a trained CIA spy, fights for his life against the agency which would pull the plug on him if it means extracting the database in his head. She attempts to get to the bottom of this aided by operative Peter (Justin Bartha), a dead ringer for real life Information-Age celebrity Edward Snowden. A bunch of stuff happens, maybe. Or maybe it’s all a comatose hallucination, as the flashback-and-forth style, constantly interrupted by blooming fractal CGI broccoli and spastic video-glitching, blasts across the screen, obliterating any attempt at narrative flow. I mentioned Run, Lola, Run above; Against the Clock should be titled “Fall, Chandler, Fall,” as we see a hundred shots of him collapsing to the ground, so we know he was hurt bad. In between, he bleeds from the ears and fights a smoke man (that’s a man made of smoke).
With the above said: believe it or not, this film does have some merit fighting to punch its way out of the suffocating CGI sludge. The smoke man and a few other effects are interesting. The pretty visuals guarantee that any screenshot or trailer will look misleadingly awesome. Bartha and Agron manage to slip some acting under the radar. The dialogue approaches the surreal, in snips. Whether intentionally or through incompetence, the movie loathes standing still long enough to speak complete sentences, so “talking” consists of misfired one-liners traded just over the shoulder of the other speaker. At no time does any exchange add up to a complete conversation. If you’re nodding off, the movie obligingly honks out-of-context train whistles and air horns in your face to bring you back to gobsmacked semi-attention. Some scenes, if they were housed in an MTV commercial bumper, might have some kind of a point.
Against the Clock is not quite the worst movie I’ve seen. It has ambitions to be the Pi of Jason-Bourne movies. It fails dead before it hits the floor, of course; it’s pretty obvious that the frantic nonsense is there to cover for the missing 3/4ths of a full script it should have had. But at least it’s well intended and makes for an artistic corpse.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For his solo debut as a writer-director, Mark Polish has made his own skewed version of a spy thriller. ‘Against the Clock’ (known as ‘Headlock’ when it was first completed, roughly three years ago) shifts unpredictably among realities, telling a story that doesn’t make a lot of sense but that is often visually arresting.”–Noel Murray, LA Times (contemporaneous)