Based on Stephen Gould’s science fiction novel of the same, the big screen translation of “Jumper” is actually a pretty good idea and while a piece meaningful, philosophical storytelling is probably out of the question, there’s plenty of room there for some decent light, effects heavy entertainment. Sure it’s shamelessly targeted towards a teenage audience right from the beginning, with David’s angsty outsider origin. The same one, in fact, used in every teenager-centric piece of storytelling since at least “Rebel Without a Cause,” right down to the sensitive but obtuse girl of his dreams and her jerk, bully boyfriend. It all makes me wonder, not for the first time, if anyone in Hollywood has ever met an actual teenager. The reality is probably a lot more mercenary, as the screenwriters and executives try to appeal to their target audience’s basest power/persecution fantasies. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, outside of the boredom of repetition anyway. Light entertainment is all about playing to an audience’s fantasy, and there have been more than a few genuinely well-crafted and entertaining films that have started the same way and gotten away with it, usually out of sheer energy and creativity.
“Jumper” is not one of those films.
The execution is botched right from the word go. It’s badly structured, the plot is aimless and often pointless and characterization is a mess. It’s often said the script in these kinds of films is really just an excuse to hang action set pieces of off, theoretically the reason anyone goes to see these things to begin with. However true that may be though, that skeleton is still necessary to keep a story rolling along with at least a veneer of plausibility. When it stops working it takes suspension of disbelief right out the window with it, and brings a film to a screeching, crashing halt. And boy howdy does the script not work in “Jumper.”
There are three credited screenwriters, with most of what appears on screen being the work of director Doug Liman’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” collaborator Simon Kinberg, and if anyone deserves the blame for the great heaping mess that is “Jumper” it’s him, although the reported studio mandated recasting of the male and female leads during filming probably didn’t help either.
David’s initial actions, he lives a life of luxury as an uncatchable bank robber, are actually quite logical. He really is living the teenage/early twenties dream. He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants with no real effort and no authority to stand in his way. His life is entirely about pleasing himself from moment to moment and is as restlessly empty as it sounds. Unfortunately, it also makes David completely unlikable right from the start, and not only does Kinberg et al. manage not to do anything about that, they don’t even seem to bother. The idea seems to be that the audience will want to be David so much that they won’t notice what a worthless, selfish hole he is. Christensen does his best but there’s really nothing to work with here as David spends much of the film floundering about and reacting to the world around him.
Much more interesting is Jamie Bell’s (“Billy Elliot”) Griffin, a renegade jumper who’s decided to take the fight to the Paladins. He’s charismatic, motivated and proactive, and quite competent in his Jumping skills, taking on several Paladins at a time while David sits around getting beat up. In fact, most of the film’s best action sequences revolve around Griffin and it’s impossible not to think that a film about him would be immensely more interesting than this one.
The Jumping sequences really are the only reason to watch the film at all. Director Liman is a superb craftsman, and he’s lost none of his skill here. He and his storyboarding and effects team have put a great deal of thought into fighting with teleporting and come up with a number of superb gags. If only they’d put that much effort into the rest of the film. Because in between the Jumping sequences the film floats on a vast sea of pointlessness, where characters often converse endlessly without actually relating any kind of coherent information, but managing travel to scenic locations around the world in the process which seems to have been the real point after all. One excruciating sequence where David follows Griffin around Japan trying to talk him into teaming up with him should be the definition of bad writing as nothing they say makes any sort of sense nor does it lead in any way to the conclusions the characters eventually reach but hey, they get to teleport a sports car while driving it so, whatever. It’s actually quite easy to see how that sort of thing would make the film an easy sell to studio bigwigs with its easy visualization and theoretically dynamic pace. It’s like a good pitch that no one ever figured out how to turn into an actual movie.
Samuel L. Jackson is also completely wasted as head Paladin Roland, a sort of very vague holy warrior. The connection to the Charlemagne character is more than clever naming, there is some effort to actually connect him and his men to the various knightly orders of the Middle Ages, so apparently the Crusades were really all about fighting teleporters and not Islam. Don’t think about it too hard. Roland only exists to show up and beat on David from time to time and there’s not anything more to him. At all. Anyone could have done it, but the filmmakers seem to be hoping some of Jackson’s considerable gravitas will rub off on the film whenever he’s around. And it does to an extent, but not enough to save this turkey.
A few really well executed set pieces are all that really save “Jumper” from being a complete waste, but not enough to make it worth going to see, and certainly not enough to wash out the bad taste the story leaves behind. It’s amazing that someone actually paid for this script, much less decided to make it, but at this level of filmmaking it really is more about who you know than the quality of your work.