You need to accept this reality.
— Carver (Djimon Hounsou)
“There are special people in the world. We didn’t ask to be special. We’re just born that way.” When Dakota Fanning makes this pronouncement at the start of Push, you might imagine she’s talking about herself, that is, a member of that small community of precocious, photogenic, exceptionally wealthy child performers, or perhaps celebrities more generally. And she might as well be, for Cassie, the 13-year-old superhero she’s actually playing here, is privileged and pursued by nefarious villains with gizmos — much like stars today, or at least much like stars today are described by paparazzi and other, ostensibly more legitimate hunting parties.
Cassie might also be a member of any other elite population, of course, which is the beauty of the superhero metaphor, especially as it’s been franchised recently, under rubrics like Heroes or X-Men. Cassie’s specific story, as she tells it, began in 1945, when the Nazis (who also jumpstarted Hellboy) conducted experiments, hoping to create an army of genetic mutants (as in, say, Dark Angel). Though the war ended, Cassie explains, the research continued under the auspices of an entity called — so militarily — Division, leading eventually to an odious twist wherein mutants are experimenting on each other, still seeking the unstoppable body (the driving irony of this plot is always the same, in that the experimenters assume test subjects will comply, and the would-be conscripts always resist). As Push picks up this plot’s progress, one especially odious twist embodied, Carver (Djimon Hounsou) is overseeing tests of a superdrug designed to enhance mutants’ powers. So far, it has been killing all subjects — until it doesn’t kill one. She’s Kira (Camilla Belle), and once she gasps and convulses her way into superlife, she escapes the Division lab (like Jessica Alba’s Max or Milla Jovovich’s Alice). Carver pursues. And Push is now underway.
Almost. Cassie offers a bit more explanation: most mutants exist outside of Division, undercover so as to avoid being experimented on, and they fall into different categories. She, for instance, is a Watcher, meaning that she sees the future, only sometimes gets it wrong because the future can change (admittedly, this does make the precise helpfulness of her gift a little hard to fathom). Carver, like Kira, is a Pusher, meaning he can push thoughts into people’s heads, sort of like Yoda. And Nick (Chris Evans) is a Mover, possessed of telekinetic powers like Carrie, only with less control. He’s introduced as a child who sees his father brutally murdered by Carver, which means he’s not only special, but also bears something of a trauma and grudge. This, along with his father’s last words (“A girl will give you a flower: help her”) make him open to Cassie’s request for help, she being the girl with the flower and all (a plot turn that seems rather predictable, even amid the seeming narrative chaos before and after).
Cassie has her own grudge against Division, as it has locked up her mother — purportedly a legendary watcher — for predicting some dire future events (see also: Connor, Sarah). Cassie wants to save Kira from Division in order to save her mother (it’s not entirely clear how this sequence of events will work, but okay). Throughout the film, Cassie’s version of predicting the future involves a thick-black-paper-paged notebook and different-colored shiny-ink pens, with which she draws exceptionally childish images of what she’s seeing (describing her visions is apparently not an option). She, she presents Nick with pages full of stick figures labeled “me” or “Nick” with their heads exploded or their insides on the sidewalk, urging him to action. He has his own ideas, namely, that he’s got a deep and painful romantic past with Kira, which makes him inclined to save her but also inclined to feel pained about her.
Perpetually arguing and competing against the brightly colored urban backdrop of Hong Kong, Cassie and Nick make a frankly appealing duo (she’s jealous of the romance with Kira and so behaves appropriately kid-sister-like, to underscore this duo’s lack of untoward mutual affection). Once he’s on board, in order to complete his Cassie-and-self-appointed mission, Nick assembles a multi-culti team, including the Shifter Hook (the excellent as always Cliff Curtis), who makes things into other things, like paper into cash, and Emily (Ming Na), who can glean people’s current whereabouts by touching objects they once touched. As usual this disparate team is united by their common enemies, namely, Division and also a fierce Chinese syndicate, complete with skinny-legged, thuggy brothers who essentially yell their victims into quivering, bloody-eared abjection and death (like a more graphic iteration of Bolt’s super-bark) and their sultry sister-Watcher (Lu Lu), whose drawings tend to tell different stories than Cassie’s about who wins and loses.
As Cassie and Nick endeavor to save Kira (and so, perhaps, the world), they are beset repeatedly by their plot’s repeated and fundamental incoherence. In itself, this is hardly news in a superhero saga, but Push escalates the stakes of incoherence, naming it a plot point per se. “What if nothing made sense?” Nick proposes. His crew looks at him with mouths agape. Indeed, he persists, this will be the plan: he’ll assign tasks secretly (by notes in envelopes, so quaint), so no one else knows what anyone else is doing, and no one will know what he or she is doing until the moment of doing. No Watchers will be able to see that future. It’s brilliant.
That’s not to say the film is brilliant. It is, instead, often annoying and, for all the frenetic fight scenes and faux philosophical notations, sometimes boring. Still, it seems to know what it is, and leaves you to guess at it when it can’t be bothered to explain every bit: too much explanation, of the sort Cassie is inclined to provide, only slows down the nonsense Push is pushing.