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The question on the table, raised in regard to Deja Vu, Denzel Washington’s mind- and space-bending new thriller, is this: Is Hollywood getting smarter, or are audiences demanding smarter movies?


“You know, I always shake my head when someone refers to Hollywood or `the studios’ as some kind of cabal or brain trust or something,” Washington says. “I mean, am I Hollywood? Is Russell Crowe Hollywood? Is Jerry Bruckheimer? The guy who heads distribution at Disney?


“As for the studios, I’ve worked for almost all of them, and the people who run them are all different kinds of people. Heck, sometimes they’re different from one meeting to the next. So, the only thing they have in common, I guess, is that they want to make money. And some of them, believe it or not, want to make good pictures. Lately, they seem to be doing that.”


Deja Vu, which opens nationwide Wednesday—kicking off the holiday movie season—looks to be an example of that.


It reunites Washington with producer Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott, the team responsible for Man on Fire and Crimson Tide, and Washington has no compunction about calling it a popcorn movie.


“It is a popcorn movie,” says Washington. “But I warn people, you better have all the popcorn you want before you sit down, because you may not be getting up. You gotta watch this movie, because it’s tricky. There’s things going on you have to pay attention to.”


Deja Vu is not a film that should be overly described in advance—even if it could be.


It is set in New Orleans, post-Katrina; it was in production when the hurricane hit, and had to be postponed during the rescue efforts and clean-up—“alleged clean-up,” Washington says. With the high-powered and high-paid talent involved, it was thought the production would relocate elsewhere, but Washington says all involved were committed to keeping the movie there, to add something to the economy “and just make a statement.”


In any case, the disaster then was made part of the story “out of necessity,” he says. Washington plays an ATF agent who is brought in to help the local police and a federal team headed by Val Kilmer to investigate another disaster, this time man-made: the bombing of a ferry, potentially an act of terrorism. But when Washington examines the body of a young woman (played in flashback by Paula Patton) killed in the explosion, he discovers she was murdered before the event, raising some serious questions.


The answers may be provided by a mind-blowing government secret project that combines high-tech surveillance and experimental physics theory that allows Kilmer’s team to peer into the past. Washington is in effect investigating a crime that has not yet happened—and that is already in the past.


“When I read the first screenplay, I had a hard time getting my head around it. Then Jerry (Bruckheimer) said something to me that was really simple, but helped me immensely. He said, `Look into that mirror. See your reflection? That’s not you anymore. That’s traveling light—it takes time to get back to you.’


“Truthfully, we can’t predict how people will react. The preview audiences have loved it, but you have to exercise your brain on this one. We’ve gone back and added some dialogue to make some things a little clearer but, in fact, you don’t want to explain too much. You want to get the audience working with you, involved. I love going to a movie where I figure something out a second or two before the good guy does, you know? I like to be part of the picture.”


Washington is hesitant to say whether the recent box office success of smart, challenging entertainments like The Departed, The Prestige and World Trade Center, and smaller, audience-connecting films like The Illusionist and The Queen could indicate a change in the movie industry. “The truth is, we go through good stretches and we go through bad stretches.”


He also points out that the summer movies most beloved by critics, notably Superman Returns and Monster House, underperformed, while Bruckheimer’s much-derided Pirates of the Caribbean cleaned up.


“The first thing I know is that if you make a good movie with actors that people want to see on screen, you always do OK,” he says. “Look at Inside Man, for example,” he says, referring to the spring bank-heist thriller he made with Spike Lee. “That movie had serious things to say, but they were in the context of a really entertaining movie.


“The second thing I know is that success breeds imitation in this business. If a movie like Deja Vu takes off, then people start saying, `Let’s make another movie about the time-space continuum.’ That doesn’t usually work. You have to come up with new ways to keep audiences engaged. You don’t want new ideas to become a new formula.”


Aside from the twisty plot, the most notable element of Deja Vu is how loose Washington is on screen. When one particularly funny line of dialogue is recalled—too good to be ruined for the audience by reprinting it here—Washington is quick and proud to claim it as something he improvised on the spot. And he is quick to acknowledge that something has happened to his acting in the past few years.


“I’m just more comfortable being me on screen, revealing more of me. You know, as odd as it sounds, it started in Training Day. As rough as that film was, playing that character was liberating. I mean, he was a funny dude, even if he was evil. I enjoyed watching that guy.


“So I can’t say I have been trying to get more spontaneity in my performances, I just am. I’m letting myself open up more, I know, and it feels good. It’s fun. I don’t know, maybe I took myself too seriously there for a while, and now I’m just going with it—I’m being me.”


Washington won his best actor Oscar for Training Day in the same historic year that Halle Berry won best actress for Monster’s Ball—the first year that two African Americans took the top prizes. This year, it is possible that at least three of the best actor nominees will be African American, though Washington doubts he will be among them: “Smart as it may be, Deja Vu is still an action thriller, and the Academy doesn’t usually recognize those.”


Most forecasters have Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) and Jamie Foxx (Dreamgirls) on the list, along with long-shot Derek Luke for Catch a Fire.


“You know I discovered that kid,” says Washington, who cast the unknown Luke in his first film as a director, Antwone Fisher. “I could just tell he had that in him, because he was hungry and eager to learn everything he could as fast as he could.


“So, if he gets nominated, I can claim a little piece of that, right?”


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