FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a total nerd who gets roped into going undercover as a skinhead, convinced by a colleague (Toni Collette) that white supremacy groups pose just as much of a threat, if not more, to homeland security as radical Islamic groups. She makes a good point. Early on she asserts people like Timothy McVeigh aren’t actually crazy even though it’s comforting to dismiss them as such. What’s scarier is people like him can’t be spotted in a crowd, unlike the low-level street thugs you see demonstrating in parades and redirecting the nation’s outrage away from the deeper problems.
The film suggests the outspoken hatemongers you see stirring up the controversy on TV and the internet aren’t necessarily the ones you should worry about, but we should instead focus on the smart ones who hide behind this veil of misdirection. It’s on the front line of unwitting pawns that Foster initially infiltrates the group, shaving his head and getting a pride tattoo. He quickly learns there are many layers to the real life conspiracy. The movement is meticulously designed with its hierarchy of street warriors, PR specialists, conventions, and militias. Foster is shocked to learn that his intelligence—the one thing he thought he had going against him—is actually what helps him advance within the dark network.
My first reaction to Imperium’s marketing was it seemed just a little too gimmicky. The movie sites were saying, “See Harry Potter go undercover and fight skinheads!” The trailer felt a little too much like The Departed, which I think was intentional. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, when taken out of the context of the actual movie, seemed entirely too suspicious to work, at least in the glimpses we got from the trailer.
His acting, however, is the best part of the movie. I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series, yet the more I see Radcliffe, the more I forget he ever played the boy magician. I think it’s clear he’s not trying to distance himself from his child star image, he’s simply doing it by being the real deal—an authentic actor who doesn’t feel too entitled to fully dedicate himself to the process. We’ve seen lots of stars play undercover agents, but have you ever seen one look like he was on the edge of breaking at any moment? When we see guys like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio going undercover, they’re playing street-smart guys who happen to be good at turning the acting on or off as needed. Radcliffe is playing a guy who doesn’t have that particular skill set.
Meanwhile Toni Collette is great as always. Tracy Letts, playing a white pride radio personality (think Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, etc.) makes me wonder why the Killer Joe playwright doesn’t act more than he currently does. My only minor complaint is that although the movie doesn’t feel like Donnie Brasco or The Departed for the most part, there are certainly moments which seem a little too familiar. No, it’s not as good as those two films, and maybe not as good as American History X (though I haven’t seen it since it came out), but I did watch five movies this weekend and it was easily my favorite of the bunch.
An unusual creative decision in a movie like this is the reduced role of guns. This isn’t an action movie, nor does it want to be one. It isn’t going to have a montage of contracted assassinations or culminate in a big, bloody shootout. Imperium feels like it might be something that happens all the time, which is probably the most chilling aspect of it.
Speaking of Tracy Letts, he also appears in Elvis & Nixon, which stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as the title characters. It’s by no means a bad movie and you can currently stream it on Amazon Video. If you’re no stranger to the quality of HBO Films, it’s right along those lines in terms of production value. I’d describe it as pleasant, but not great, and having seen at least a dozen different actors portray Elvis, I always wonder how you can possibly play the guy without going over the top.