Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in "Total Recall."

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in "Total Recall." Credit: Sony

What's the difference between the "Total Recall" in theaters today and the original film from 1990? It comes down to this: One is a high-water mark of the action-blockbuster era, an R-rated splatter-fiesta directed at full tilt by Paul Verhoeven ("RoboCop") and starring that charismatic combo of beef and ham, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The other is a PG-13 movie with Colin Farrell.

Sorry if the comparisons are unfair, but the new "Total Recall" invites them, cracking inside jokes for fans but failing to improve on its predecessor. Remember that three-breasted prostitute? She and her twin cleavage return. But what about that giant techno-booger that came out of Arnold's nose? Or the bullet-riddled corpse he used as a shield? Or his double-arm amputation of the movie's villain? They're not here, and the new "Total Recall" is too timid to replace them.

The story, based on a 1966 short story by Philip K. Dick, remains roughly the same: In a dystopian future, factory worker Doug Quaid (Farrell, squirrelly but unimposing) hopes to replace his nightmares with pleasant-memory implants from the company Rekall. The process, however, triggers deadly reflexes Quaid didn't know he had. Soon, his wife (Kate Beckinsale) betrays him, a pretty insurgent (Jessica Biel) rescues him, and Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston) seems to have big plans for him.

Director Len Wiseman invents some dandy chase sequences, especially one through a crisscrossing maze of elevator cubicles, but it's Beckinsale, the pursuer, who's the most fun to watch. Nasty, funny and hellishly tenacious, she throws off the only real sparks in the movie. "Total Recall" is a toned-down, smoothed-out version of an amped-up, bug-eyed classic. Remember those deformed mutants who ended the original film by gazing hopefully toward a new dawn? They're not here, either.

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