Colin Farrell's career took off 10 years ago, when he starred in the very good Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report. Now in Total Recall, another Dick adaptation but also a remake of a 1990 film of the same name, Farrell has kind of come full circle, though not in a way that does anyone any good. A fireplug of a performer with the right material (including his villainous Minority Report performance), Farrell is a bland presence at the center of a surprisingly bland movie, which sets up any number of nifty sci-fi ideas in the service of a story that's intriguing at first, then repetitive, and then out-and-out goofy.
Director Len Wiseman, of the sturdy Underworld series, uses Total Recall's huge budget to great effect at first, establishing the richly detailed future earth, where the wealthy citizens live in the relatively humane United Federation of Britain, and the poor are stacked on top of each other in slums known as the Colony, a.k.a. Australia. Workers commute from the Colony to the UFB via a train that bores through the center of the earth, called The Fall-- a glitzy, futuristic invention that's probably the coolest offering. Farrell plays Quaid, a lowly factory worker married to some sort of future FBI agent Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is lured in by the company Rekall, which promises implanted fake memories to make his everyday drudgery more bearable.
Of course, Quaid is no worker drone-- once inside Rekall he discovers he's actually Hauser, a high-level leader of the resistance movement who was fighting to bring down the totalitarian corporate government led by Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) when he was captured and his memory wiped, supplanted by a fake one. The woman he once knew as his wife and the rest of the government are suddenly after him, but so is his former love Melina (Jessica Biel), who swoops him up in a daring hover car rescue and takes him on the run.
So far so good, in its own generic way-- Farrell does nicely with Quaid's early bewilderment, and both Beckinsale and Biel are convincing kick-ass women, even if Beckinsale's Terminator-esque determination to kill Quaid borders on cartoonish. But even a plot as simple and familiar as Total Recall's falls constantly into logic holes, whether from evident tinkering in the edit room-- the Colony's name was originally New China, for just one example-- or a blithe disregard for continuity when there's another huge action scene to show.
And there's a lot of action to get through, some of them inventively staged like a platform-hopping video game, but many of them fight sequences chopped into pieces, like every other modern action film that's driven you crazy when you can't tell what's happening. Total Recall moves at a relentless pace, but eventually the action and gunfighting and jumping out of windows starts to blur together, becoming dull in the way only an action movie can when it's trying so hard not to bore you.
Usually a noisy sci-fi movie with more action than ideas is harmless, a staple of summer and early fall, the kind of thing that fills up the space between The Dark Knight Rises and September. But as a remake of a movie that was perfectly fine, and also a phenomenal waste of Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston and a promising premise, Total Recall feels more insidious, and will remain so even after I've completely forgotten I ever saw it. It's one thing to make a mediocre movie, but another to do so with something that could have been much more.