IMPERIUM Review

There have been a number of different, interesting, and downright strange roles Daniel Radcliffe has taken in what publicly has felt like an attempt to distance himself from the role that will forever define him, but Radcliffe seems a smart enough fella to understand and realize that no matter what movies he makes in his post-Harry Potter years that it is "the boy who lived" that he will forever be most known for. Rather than necessarily distancing himself from that role, Radcliffe seems more intent on exploring territory he never was able to during his years at Hogwarts. Whether that be Allen Ginsberg, a guy with mysterious horns sprouting out of his head, or a farting corpse-Radcliffe has ventured into areas that even the fearless Mr. Potter might have had some trepidation towards. There is no exception with Radcliffe's latest film as the actor portrays Nate Foster in a story inspired by real-life FBI agent Michael German, who helped co-write the script with director Daniel Ragussis. How is Foster different than anything Radcliffe has played before if he's simply an FBI agent you ask? Well, after displaying the necessary skills in the eyes of higher-up Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) to go undercover Zamparo requests Foster infiltrate a radical white supremacy terrorist group. In short, Radcliffe is a skinhead in a role that asks him to play with the moral complexities of remaining true to the identity he has assumed while attempting to navigate this dangerous world without forgetting the principles that brought him to this line of work in the first place. It is a role worth salivating over for sure, but the question with such potential in a leading role is will the movie itself be able to keep up with what this intriguing character is doing on its own. With Imperium, the answer is 50/50. Though there are plenty of tense moments via Ragussis' script that come with the nature of the subject matter and a few sequences that test the resolve of Radcliffe's Foster it is largely Radcliffe's performance that brings the otherwise meandering narrative to possess real purpose. It isn't necessarily that the plot is bad as it follows a somewhat standard undercover storyline where the viewer can't help but feel our protagonist is under suspicion because we know the truth thus giving way to moments when that protagonist puts on display why they were chosen for such a mission. Beyond the routine story beats though, is there something the film is trying to say? It feels like there is and that there should be with Imperium, but what exactly those things are never come across.

Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) in Imperium via Lionsgate's Imperium.
Upon first meeting Foster it doesn't seem as if he's the type of FBI agent one might assume would be great for undercover work. Ragussis makes it very clear Foster is more an Ivy League recruit for the sake of his brains rather than his brawn. He is young, idealistic, and something of a nerd. He goes home from sifting through e-mails to drink a nice bottle of wine and eat dinner alone while reading Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge while listening to Brahms. It is not until Zamparo sees Foster interrogating a potential Islamic terrorist and sees that he can divulge people for who they are rather than what their stats present them to be that the light bulb goes off. We learn that Zamparo heads up investigations dealing with white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and any other individuals that might be interested in inciting a race war. Once Zamparo has him on the hook, Foster can't help but dive into researching and reading all he can into the idea of going undercover within one of these radical right-wing terrorist groups by convincing him he has the skills despite Foster not believing it himself-he's aware enough to know most would categorize him as bookish and an introvert. Nonetheless, Foster is intrigued by the idea of stretching his people skills and being able to control situations under these circumstances that speak to his overall principle of trying to change things so others won't have to suffer in the same ways he feels he has. Once Zamparo has Foster on the hook, there is no looking back despite the warning of his immediate superior (Nestor Carbonell) who advises Foster that undercover work is career suicide though why this is the case is unclear. Twenty minutes into the film and Ragussis drops us as well as his main character into a situation neither we nor Foster are sure we're ready for. The mission is to get in with a specific group of skinheads (including Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, and Seth Numrich) who are close with a radio personality that calls himself Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) and amasses twenty thousand listeners a night as he spins conspiracy theories about how the world is out to destroy the white man.

Far and away the best thing about Imperium is the central performance from Radcliffe. Ragussis and his lead actor do well to craft an initial impression that leaves audiences nervous he won't be successful in infiltrating a gang and genuinely convincing the other members that he can be a legitimate contribution to their cause. There is the obligatory shaving of the head scene, but more telling than his appearance is that aforementioned interrogation scene where Foster transcends his brainiac persona and meets the Muslim man he is speaking with in his native language on a human level. If Foster can break through this barrier in the same way with the gang of white supremacists there is no reason to believe he won't be successful. That is all in theory, of course, with the most difficult aspect being trying to imagine having anything in common with these people who truly believe they are superior to others because of their race. Despite excelling in the people skills department there is something inherently nerve-wracking about the scrawny and rather petite Radcliffe entering into a situation where we know this character, despite his intelligence, likely isn't able to physically defend himself. Radcliffe plays on this underdog facade well by being welcomed into the impulsive, violent, and often inebriated skinhead gang on the merits of his past military experience-immediately displaying a knack for utilizing what he learned while serving rather than displaying any kind of dominance via brute force. The strongest elements are when the film puts Radcliffe's Foster in situations that test his mental capacity. A particular scene in which the head of security for the skinheads, Roy (Numrich), wants to attack an interracial couple and Foster deliberately sabotages his efforts and insists they flee is one that calls Foster's intentions into question placing him in the midst of being potentially found out. It is Radcliffe's performance in this moment as we see Foster having to think on his feet and deliver a convincing and more intelligent counter-argument that credibly refutes the accusations Roy is making without arousing real suspicion that perfectly encapsulates what it feels Ragussis was attempting to relay with his film as a whole. The scene is beyond tense, perfectly performed, and conveys the bigger ideas of reckless extremism versus rationalized and sincere, albeit misguided, convictions.          

Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) discusses Dallas Wolf's (Tracy Letts) options as he reports suspicious activity.
Imperium opens with a quote one might find appealing, interesting, and even inspiring only to reveal after a beat that it was said by Adolf Hitler. While something of an unfairly baited trap, the ploy ultimately works to provide an example of how ideas can attract-even those spoken by a dictator who ordered the death of over eleven million people. Imperium has plenty of other solid things going for it as Radcliffe isn't the only person in the film doing good work. Colette gives a serviceable performance in a rather futile role-her gum-smacking especially noticeable and annoying while Letts is granted the opportunity to chew actual scenery as a Rush Limbaugh-type that feeds into the bigotry and hatred of his listeners in order to amass more of them-and more profit. The film also offers fascinating insight when it comes to fleshing out the types of people that one might find operating in this frame of mind and in these organizations. Sam Trammell's Gerry Conway is a prime example of what otherwise looks to be an upstanding, average citizen in society, but through the reading of many texts that have reinforced his natural inclinations is a man who firmly stands by the belief the white man is responsible for creating all of mankind. While these insights are compelling if not surprising and Radcliffe's central performance is reason enough to check the film out, the real issues with the film stem from Ragussis being unable to find a momentum to his footage in the editing room. The film is more than competent enough to walk us through the natural if not formulaic steps that Foster takes from getting in on the ground level and building up the trust of those at the head of the Aryan Brotherhood including Andrew (Chris Sullivan) as well as developing a full-fledged relationship with Conway, but there isn't necessarily a pop to any of it. Never does it feel as if the film gets past its structure in order to have a deeper, lengthier conversation about the psychology of becoming something you're not in order to try and understand people that are not like you. At one point in the film Zamparo says, "We all create a narrative on what we think is important." Obviously, Ragussis found the idea of these home-grown terrorists a frightening and honestly, overlooked concern for our society, but while he might find such a narrative important the thoughts he has offered on that narrative end up leaving no lasting impression.