You’d think the creators of a movie featuring both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe might have starstruck fags in mind, and in the case of Virtuosity, you might be right. But prepare yourself for a slap in the face even as the drool collects in your lap.
Afrikanski-Amerikanski heartthrob unit Denzel Washington plays Parker Barnes, a murderer/ex-cop sprung from jail to track down and terminate Sid 6.7, a composite of infamous killers’ personality traits created by a programmer named Lindenmeyer (Stephen Spinella, outfag actor of Angels in America fame). Sid was devised as a virtual-reality cop-training tool, but when the Sid project is threatened with shutdown after a rather nasty software bug emerges, Lindenmeyer sets Sid loose on the world with the help of nanotechnology, which turns a virtual Sid into a real one formed from glass.
Sid is the real star here – amoral and sexy, cold-blooded and charming, murderous and fuckable. He’s animated (literally) by Russell Crowe, late of The Sum of Us; Crowe’s wide-ranging acting talents continue to impress, and the young Australian brilliantly imparts Sid’s single-minded intelligence, savoir-faire (savoir-tuer?), and gleeful sadism. And as usual, Australians do better American accents than Americans.
Sid’s a bit of a rake, too – and since he contains a dollop of Jeffrey Dahmer, he has a way with the gents as well as the ladies. It’s pretty subtle – a peck on the cheek; a remark that Denzel Washington is on Sid’s dance card; forcing a guy to strip so Sid can try on his suit – but lighthearted and far less insidious than the rank aberrance of, say, Scott Pritchard, the deranged queer military attaché in No Way Out. In a Van Damme-esque frisson of homoeroticism, Washington and Crowe are both naked in the film (though not frontally); in a shoot-’em-up movie, that’s psychologically significant. (Who’s the main audience for action flicks? Guys. You figure it out.)
Still, Vito Russo is surely whirling in his grave at Lindenmeyer, a stereotypical Hollywood sissy straight out of the ’50s. Lindenmeyer’s faggotry is never stated outright, but we know the signs: Perennially uptight in his three-piece suit, the friendless geek lives alone, talks in a “typical gay voice” (is Spinella capable of any other kind?), and jealously relishes how his creation toys with Madison Carter (played by Kelly Lynch), a female criminologist who accompanies Barnes on his quest for Sid. Oh, and he jerks off after conjuring a naked Sid in the privacy of Lindenmeyer’s own lab. This, we assume, is a sign.
But getting all up in arms at yet another example of filmic homo slander takes concentration, and Virtuosity’s string of cinematic references are quite enough to distract you. Early on, Denzel Washington’s dishevelment and demeanour recall his role as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. (What’s more, Virtuosity’s anticlimactic ending mirrors that film’s structure.) At one point Washington’s fingers linger over Lynch’s as in Silence of the Lambs, but with the added zing of miscegenation. Virtuosity’s plot, editing and soundtrack are Natural-Born Killers Lite. Saturday Night Fever is blatantly quoted in a brief but funny vignette. Madison Carter is a science-fiction reference: Edison Carter had a doppelgänger named Max Headroom.
High-and-mighty Gitanes-smoking intellectual filmheads might dismiss those quotations as a hollow pastiche, and indeed this is not The Player, where the cavalcade of references made sense in a movie about movies. But contrary to typical Hollywood formula, Washington and Lynch don’t get romantically involved, and for Washington there’s no happy ending. Virtuosity is a perplexing mishmash – creative, derivative, homoerotic, and homophobic all at once.