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The quest for perfection goes awry

Fear not.

The preposterous, downright hilarious hairpiece perched smugly atop Bruce Willis' head at the beginning of "Surrogates" doesn't indicate that the fellow's vanity has taken a sudden turn toward the surreal. Believe me, he knows what a cleanhead his genes have dictated that he be and he's not trying to convince you otherwise.

It's the same hairpiece he always seems to wear when he's playing a part that's Bruce But Not Really Bruce.

In "Surrogates," then, the first Bruce we see is the immaculately pink and clean-shaven and wavy-haired surrogate cop who is merely the robotic extension of the real fellow, who is bald as a cueball, decidedly pasty-looking and wearing a couple days worth of facial fuzz. He's the one at the time who's sound asleep in his apartment, with his dreams operating his surrogate out in the world.

Got all that? The premise of this movie is way cool. The movie isn't, but the idea of the movie is so good that all manner of imaginative curlicues and sudden new wrinkles can show up in the plot to keep you occupied in between misfires and pretty fair action scenes.

It seems that in the near future, prosthetic devices will become so advanced that entire robots can be created to be operated out of human heads. They'll be even better than clones, see, because clones, after all, have minds of their own, no matter how identical to yours their genes may be.

It's all from a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele.

God bless graphic novels, I say. They've done more to give a shot in the arm to junk cinematic creativity than almost anything else in the past decade.

The trouble with this adaptation, frankly, is that it is astoundingly humorless. If, like me, you tend to be either dirty-minded or given to seeing the absurdity of everything (or both), you'll probably think of 10 different comic possibilities in the first five minutes of this movie. Nor will you stop as it goes along.

The movie follows none of them. Only once (my lips are sealed) is there anything even vaguely amusing coming out of the notion that humans have perfect, superhumanly gifted surrogates to do all the things they're either no good at or turned off by. Call them "surries" for short, by the way, if you want to be friendly.

While the "surries" have pretty much taken over, the actual human race has degenerated into a lot of overweight, hairy, sweaty, drug-addled creatures with a lot of gastric distress and not much in the way of ambition. The worst of them are even kept in a very funky "reservation" on the outskirts of town, where they have a wildly hirsute, vaguely Rastafarian-looking "prophet" (Ving Rhames at his vingiest.)

There's a movement, though, to redress things. In fact, the major revolutionary among the "meatbags" (humans, i.e. us) is the guy who invented the "surries" in the first place. He's played by James Cromwell -- a man seldom happy at the movies -- in a wheelchair.

Willis -- both surrogate and human -- is the cop on the case. His partner is played by the glacially beauteous Radha Mitchell, whose crystalline gorgeousness is used to excellent effect here.

Things get quite complicated at the end. You won't need a scorecard, necessarily, but you've got humans fighting for surries and surries fighting for humans and all manner of people who can't quite seem to decide if the status quo works or it doesn't.

Director Jonathan Mostow made a terrific B-movie once ("Breakdown") and since then he's either been an action pro for hire ("Terminator 3") or a macho flick bore ("U-571.")

This is, by no possible definition, a good movie. Compared, say, to the wonderfully grubby recent sci-fi movie "District 9," this movie keeps stalling out dramatically and imaginatively, like an old car.

But periodic little jolts of authentic cleverness keep you with it until the climax which, I must say, is quite smashing. I can't tell you what happens.

The movie isn't at all good, but that sudden climax is weirdly memorable.

The memory of it may even last longer than the memory of Willis' slapstick matinee idol toupee.




2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, James Cromwell and Ving Rhames in Jonathan Mostow's adaptation of a graphic novel about a future where perfect prosthetic surrogates have taken over for slovenly overweight human beings. Rated PG-13 and now playing at area theaters.

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