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click to enlarge Whats the frequency, Dennis?
  • Whats the frequency, Dennis?

Frequency (PG-13)
New Line Cinema

This sci-fi thriller opens with a bang, follows up with a prolonged seat-gripping session and ends with Garth Brooks howling about life and love. Go figure.

Seriously, I was engrossed in the convoluted twists and turns of Frequency's plot. It's the story of John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel), a New York City (specifically Queens) cop whose father Frank (Dennis Quaid), a swaggering fire fighter, is tragically killed in a warehouse fire in 1969, when Johnny's just six years old. Frank's death comes the same year that the Nightingale killer stalks the streets of the city, murdering pretty young nurses; and years later, John and his partner are still trying to discover the identity the Nightingale murderer. Through a series of strange events, seemingly related to the rare appearance of the northern lights (aurora borealis) over Queens, John is able to communicate via ham radio with his dead dad and save him from his fiery death.

That, however, as every good time travel fan knows, changes the course of all the events that follow -- and now John and Frank must figure out how to keep John's mom (Elizabeth Mitchell) from being the next victim of the Nightingale killer. Oh, and at the same time, he has to convince his dad to quit smoking in order to avoid death by lung cancer.

Whew!

Director Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) knows how to create tension, and succeeds here with dark lighting, a cast of compelling characters and the magnetic charm of late 1960s New York summer nights. Had he stuck to the story he originally set out to tell, Frequency would have been a terrific film. Unfortunately, Hoblit was swayed somewhere in the production process, and gradually the threads of the story begin to unravel as he throws in new stuff -- an anti-smoking commercial, cheap special effects in the climactic scene -- and succumbs, finally, to a completely illogical and smarmy happy, happy ending (enter the voice of Garth Brooks).

Quaid is tense and hyperactive as Frank; Caviezel is droopy, sad and outrageously handsome as grown-up Johnny, and they work well together. But screenwriter Toby Emmerich's insistence on driving home the message that fathers and sons just don't say "I love you" enough yields some almost unbearably sappy repartees. At one point, over the radio, Quaid chokes up and sputters to John: "You're still my little chief, right?" referring to a favorite childhood nickname. Caviezel, supposedly an emotionally distant loner, a hardcore homicide investigator, sits with tears dripping off his chin, drooling into the microphone. Sorry, but I think these two tough guys could have gotten the message across without embarrassing themselves and everyone in the theater.

Baseball is used as background, and the outcome of the 1969 World Series, foretold by John to Frank, becomes a significant factor in a particularly gripping segment of the film. But baseball as a clich is overworked here too -- flashbacks of Frank and John playing catch take up far too much screen time, and the unforgivable ending features yet another multi-generational baseball roundup.

The intent of the filmmakers and the cast is admirable, but delivery is side-stepped by overwrought sentiment. Frequency turns into mush, and the weary time traveler is left scratching his head, wondering what all the uproar was about.

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