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Reminiscence review: Hugh Jackman falls for femme fatale in engaging thriller

Inception meets Chinatown in this entertaining near-future noir in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Reminiscence
Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros.

They don't make 'em like this anymore. Not only is Reminiscence a meticulous re-creation of old-school noir thrillers, it's the kind of midsize original story that's been edged out of multiplexes by sequels and franchises in recent years. It's fitting, then, that Reminiscence is also a story about memories, reminding you of times gone by while serving up an entertaining slice of star-powered sci-fi.

Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson and Thandiwe Newton star in Reminiscence, in theaters now. Like other Warner Bros. films such as The Suicide Squad and Dune, it became available on streaming service HBO Max on the same day as its theatrical release and will stick around for a month. 

In the near future, waves crash against skyscrapers as the city of Miami lies drowned. War and ecological devastation have remade the world, but this isn't a post-apocalyptic dystopia: things continue mostly the same, particularly with the rich continuing to exploit the poor. Splashing through waterlogged streets, Jackman plays a dogged gumshoe who trades in helping people relive happier memories, only to be blindsided by Rebecca Ferguson walking through his door in an unforgettable red dress.   

Writer and director Lisa Joy has a lot of fun recreating the classic film noir template: a femme fatale tempts a troubled guy in a rumpled suit to pick at a mystery he knows he shouldn't, uncovering corruption among low-lifes and high society alike. But Joy is also the co-creator of HBO hit Westworld, and Reminiscence shares that near-future setting in which new technology provides humanity with escape -- only to find that love and hate, mayhem and murder can't be escaped so easily.

Reminiscence

Rebecca Ferguson is a femme fatale to fall for in Reminiscence.

Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros.

As you'd expect from the people behind Westworld, there's a rug-pulling twist or two in the meticulously constructed whodunnit plot, which gets more and more complicated in classic film noir style. Again, this serves up memories of everything from Farewell My Lovely to Chinatown. At the heart of the mystery is Rebecca Ferguson as a seductive femme fatale, by turns fragile and conniving, backlit with golden light. 

Jackman plays back people's treasured memories through a machine called the Tank, which itself recalls the dream-invading tech in Inception. There are definite wobbles in the explanation of how the memory-mining gadget works -- for example, recollections are seen not from the point of view of the person remembering, but as if the subject was filmed by a camera crew capturing things the subject couldn't have seen at the time. The tank is a nifty device for uncovering clues, although it does reduce Jackman to a passive observer for stretches of the film. That said, this part of the story touches on a theme of voyeurism that reflects back at us as viewers. And in the figure of the femme fatale, there's an intriguing theme of seeing what you want to see.

In between memories, Jackman splashes across ruined buildings demanding answers and throwing punches, while his gravelly voice-over riffs on "the past" and how it "haunts us." Backing him up is Westworld star Thandiwe Newton in a slightly thankless sidekick role. The supporting cast is a largely anonymous line-up of stock secondary characters (grumpy DA, bent cop, sleazy land baron) but Daniel Wu stands out as a lissom crime kingpin with a nice line in shiny jackets.

A couple of stylishly bruising fight scenes perk things up, while the intricate film noir plotting is given a visually stylish twist by sun-dappled cinematography. People live at night, suggesting humanity is out of balance with nature, and so the remorseless sun sends piercing shafts of light cutting across glowingly lit scenes. Paul Cameron's cinematography is complemented by a growling score from Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, although the music occasionally meanders into melancholy where a dash of urgency would have fired up the slower parts of the story.

Reminiscence is an assured big-screen debut from Lisa Joy, playfully recreating classic movie tropes with a modern twist. They may not make 'em like this these days, but they really should.