If you accept the low-concept premise that Doug Liman has lost interest in creating near-classic portraits of nightlife energy (Swingers, Go) in favor of mildly idiosyncratic big-studio action (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the high-concept premise of Jumper — young teleporters and the obsessives who hunt them down — sounds like a good match. Liman's best work focuses on speed made human, from the rat-a-tat of Vince Vaughn's rants in Swingers to the unstoppable Jason Bourne to just about everyone who high-tails it through Go; David Rice (Hayden Christensen), who can escape to and from just about anywhere, accomplishes that favorite Hollywood mission of taking it to the next level.
David discovers his abilities as a teenager, and lives a solitary, sneakily prosperous life (bank-robbing becomes a low-risk career choice) into his early twenties, when he encounters both other jumpers and Paladins, an organization led by Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) determined to track and kill teleporters. Their rationale — something about teleportation as an affront to God — is intriguingly creepy but little-explored.
But then, little is. Running a trim eighty-eight minutes, Jumper engages in the classic quick-junk tradeoff, its brevity coming part and parcel with painful expository narration that undermines Liman's abilities as a visual storyteller. With credits for three separate marquee screenwriters (David Goyer, Simon Kinberg, Jim Uhls) and two editors, the film is overworked to the point of murkiness, as if several filmmakers have been scribbling notes over each other until you can only make out the story in the margins.
At the center is a jumble of backstory, mythology and some admittedly neato space-leaping fights and chases. The movie skips forward over character development with snappy BAMFs; in a misguided attempt at emotional grounding, David keeps returning to his Michigan hometown, looking in on his shiftless dad and middle-school love, who has since put on at least three, maybe four pounds to transform into tiny, wide-eyed Rachel Bilson. After its second or third trip back to Ann Arbor, Jumper begins to resemble a big-budget sci-fi movie on Thanksgiving break.
In between the townie stuff, David meets Griffin (Jamie Bell), another jumper, hiding out in an Egyptian desert bunker and planning to turn the tables on the Paladins. In some of the script's only decent shorthand, David makes his case for their collaboration in terms of a Marvel Comics team-up. Indeed, both characters seem like spare X-Men — the Kitty Pryde ex-boyfriend club, maybe, but not exactly A-squad. This actually suits Christenen fine — the awkward, well-meaning semi-sociopath has become his stock in trade — and Bell has fun with a role that was probably better in someone's long-ago script draft.
For cold-weather Hollywood shlock, this is reasonably entertaining stuff: the jumpers, their accompanying special effects, Bilson and Sam Jackson's snow-white hairdo are all easy on the eyes. But for Doug Liman, who even found a little space for personality amid the gross expense of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it's a little alarming. His earlier films hit the ground running even without an action blueprint; Jumper only gets that ground-level adrenaline buzz when it works itself into a frenzy of ridiculousness. It's all snap, no crackle or pop.
Opens February 14