Riding high on the success of the complex, surprisingly thought-provoking Total Recall, writer/producer Ronald Shusett shepherded another heady sci-fi oddity into production. Like the best sci-fi, Freejack uses genre tropes to tackle weightier themes of mortality, greed, corruption, and social decay. Like the worst sci-fi, it relies far too much on trippy, 2001-esque visual effects and melodramatic monologues. Consequently, the quality lands somewhere in the middle, but I’m edging it up to a three-star review because it’s a very watchable, entertaining thriller despite its problems.

Could anyone imagine a film with a premise as convoluted as Freejack getting made today? Here are the basic beats: F-1 racer Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is madly in love with Julie Redlund (Rene Russo). He crashes during a race and wakes up 18 years in the future. A group of “bonejackers,” led by Vacendak (Mick Jagger — seriously), have pulled his body through time a microsecond before death, with the intention of jamming the soul of a wealthy man into Alex’s body. See, in the future, there’s something called the “spiritual switchboard” (seriously), where the souls of the recently deceased can be held for up to three days before moving on. If, in that time, bonejackers shove them into younger, healthier bodies, the souls can continue living indefinitely.

“Why do they have to pull people through time?” you might ask. “Why couldn’t they just use the bodies of younger people in their own time?” Answer: the world has turned into a cesspool in which the super-wealthy live in isolated high-rises, and the literally unwashed masses have to dodge bullets while feasting on rat entrails and suffering from chronic asthma and cancer caused by a toxic atmosphere. (Yes, Freejack was big on tackling hot-button early-’90s issues, from the panic about the hole in the ozone layer to the video billboards advertising assisted suicide.) Those who can afford to bonejack will not pay premium prices for the body of a disease-ravaged street urchin.

Set against this backdrop, Freejack is pretty much a standard on-the-run thriller. After escaping from the bonejackers, Alex seeks out Julie, discovers she’s a high-powered executive working for the company that rules the world, and begs for help. He has a rapidly increasing bounty on his head, and his ability to avoid the bonejackers quickly makes him a legend among the lower class — a symbol of fighting The Man and winning, something they’d all like to do but can’t. While on the run with Julie, Alex slowly pieces together exactly what is happening — a complex conspiracy involving Vacendak and his bonejackers, Julie’s boss McCandless (Anthony Hopkins), and McCandless’s sniveling toady Michelette (Jonathan Banks).

Easily the most engaging thing about Freejack is the fact that everyone has their own agenda. Scenes are thick with a paranoid sense that nobody’s telling the truth. Nothing’s black and white, not even the motives of de facto villain Vacendak. This adds to Alex’s disorientation and manages to make every character stronger than what one might expect from this sort of sci-fi/action flick. The attention to character allows for even the script’s silliest moments (such as the trippy adventure through the spiritual switchboard) to fare better than they should.

Freejack boasts excellent production design and good early-’90s visual effects. The future looks alternately grim and beautiful. Atlanta stands in for post-Apocalyptic New York City, and the fact that the city looks virtually nothing like New York is to its benefit. The unfamiliarity of this futuristic city enhances the heightened reality the filmmakers want to achieve. Veteran action director Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) knows his way around car chases and shootouts. He lacks the fever-dream flair Paul Verhoeven brought to Total Recall, but Freejack is still a slick, well-made “cyberpunk” thriller.

Freejack was released in theatres at the height of Emilio Estevez’s stardom, shortly after Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins became household names with, respectively, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Silence of the Lambs. Even Shusett had just come off a big hit with Total Recall. The talent pool combined to make a pretty good movie, but not quite a great one. I suspect its box-office failure has more to do with the difficulty of marketing such a weird story than with the quality of the film itself. It’s worth a second look.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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