Remember when virtual reality was all the rage? I’m not talking about virtual reality nowadays. I remember walking the malls in my teens during the ’90s and seeing booths set up to experience virtual reality for only $5.00 per minute. It was such a hot ticket that I never got to experience it. During this time, director Brett Leonard cashed in on the fad and created an unofficial trilogy of sorts, consisting of films that relied heavily on cutting-edge special effects.
Beginning in 1992, Leonard co-wrote and directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, The Lawnmower Man. Even though the film bared little resemblance to the short story, the feature film was groundbreaking for its heavy use of VR. And even if it didn’t resonate with critics, The Lawnmower Man was a financial success due in no small part to the ahead-of-its-time CGI that Leonard pioneered.
After directing the 1994 all-CGI music video “Kiss That Frog” for Peter Gabriel, Leonard returned to cinemas in 1995 with two films. The first of these was the horror-thriller Hideaway, starring Jeff Goldblum. As with The Lawnmower Man, Hideaway did not impress the critics. Adapted from the Dean Koontz novel of the same name, the film was mainly notable for Leonard’s impressive (at the time) FX-filled visions of the afterlife.
Coming only a few months after the release of Hideaway, Leonard unleashed his best film as of this writing: Virtuosity. Headlined by Denzel Washington and armed with a $30 million budget, Leonard made his most ambitious feature film to date.
In near-future Los Angeles, Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) is a former cop turned criminal. When a computer program named SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe) escapes into the real world, Barnes gets a chance at freedom if he can end Sid’s terror spree.
Beginning with a fantastic sequence where Parker hunts down SID 6.7 through a virtual city, you realize this is not going to be a typical action film. Yes, there are shootouts. There are chases. There are not any big twists. All of that is OK if the audience is having fun. Watching Virtuosity, I always have a lot of fun.
There are multiple aspects of the film that propel Virtuosity above the typical action fare. The first has to do with the cast. Washington immediately elevates the film and gives the role of Parker weight. Instead of watching a bland, by-the-numbers cop, the audience feels what Parker is going through and why he’s determined to catch SID 6.7.
And, speaking of SID 6.7, Crowe hams it up every second he is on screen. Virtuosity gave him one of his first mainstream roles, and he relishes the moment and owns the film. SID 6.7 is an amalgamation of 200-plus serial-killer personalities, including one with ties to Parker. Though the film does not utilize these personalities as much as one would expect, Crowe’s portrayal is so gleeful that you don’t even notice the missed potential.
Seeing these two A-listers square off for the first time is a delight. And the film doesn’t skimp on matchups between these two characters, either. Along with the opening sequence, we get clashes at nightclubs, a UFC match, and a rooftop battle. American Gangster, this is not.
As much fun as it is watching Denzel Washington battle Russell Crowe, Leonard stacks the film with capable, supporting actors to complete the cast. Partnered with Parker is Dr. Madison Carter, played by Kelly Lynch. She and Parker report to Billy Cochran, portrayed by the great William Forsythe. Tack on Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher and the always dependable William Fichtner, and you’re happily surprised to see such a talented cast.
Using his penchant for being ahead of the curve, Leonard brought nanotechnology to the forefront. Along with writer Eric Bernt, Leonard conceived SID 6.7 as a character that can regenerate via nanotechnology using glass to reproduce any injuries. Never before in a mainstream Hollywood film had such an idea been presented. Nanotechnology may be a tired concept in film, but when Virtuosity first hit cinemas, it was a great concept.
Virtuosity brought more than just nanotechnology to Hollywood. There is an idea about needing an audience watching you every second to get the gratification you desire. I feel that this concept is more relevant than ever, with a large portion of the population posting videos, pictures, and everything in between, seeking the same gratification that SID 6.7 does. On top of that, to keep up appearances, SID 6.7 has a penchant for designer suits and maintains his top-notch appearance.
Virtuosity was also one of if not the first Hollywood films to depict the UFC, including an appearance from Ken Shamrock. With mixed martial arts now one of the biggest sports in the world, Virtuosity again was ahead of the curve.
That’s the thing about Brett Leonard: His ideas transcend his films. Not every film he’s made is a game-changer, but the ideas he presents are. So, yes, while Virtuosity is a good-versus-bad film, and works on that level, Leonard was smart enough to pepper it with enough fresh ideas to make it stand out from the pack.
In celebration of Virtuosity’s 25th anniversary, I advise you to give it a watch, or rewatch, and appreciate a truly virtual experience.