At this point, Daniel Radcliffe has appeared in enough different sorts of roles on screen (and on stage) to prove that he is a solid actor and not just a one-note child star. And yet, it’s clear that Radcliffe still feels the need to shed the image of Harry Potter. That’s the only logical reason why he would take the lead in a so-so hot-button drama like Imperium, where he plays a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent who goes undercover as a white supremacist. Radcliffe acquits himself well in the role-within-a-role, but one can’t help but feeling that the filmmakers are using stunt casting (Harry Potter says the n-word!?!) to distract from the fact that their story — though purportedly fact-based — isn’t very fresh.
There aren’t many mainstream American movies about skinheads, so comparisons to 1998’s American History X are inevitable — and they are inevitably unflattering. First-time feature director Daniel Ragussis clearly wants his film to make a point about the way that the persuasive language of white supremacist propaganda and literature turns the disenfranchised into hatemongers — he even opens the film with a Hitler epigram, “Words build bridges into unexplored regions” — but Ragussis never effectively shows the appeal of his film’s neo-Nazi baddies. Where Edward Norton’s character in American History X was horrifying because of how human and magnetic he was, the world that Radcliffe’s character enters is peopled with thinly-sketched types.
In fact, Radcliffe’s character, Nate Foster, isn’t much more than a type either. Exceedingly smart and awkwardly antisocial, Nate initially looks like a nerdy Star Trek fan without a character to cosplay. An older FBI agent, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), finds that elusive role for Nate to play after some canisters of radioactive cesium are hijacked off a truck. While most of the Bureau is investigating Muslim terrorists as the possible thieves, Angela suspects it’s terror of the homegrown white supremacist variety, after hearing racist-baiting radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) directly reference the heist on his show. After pondering the pros and cons of undercover work for about a second, Nate does his homework, shaves his head, and manages to babble the correct kind of racist nonsense to get in with some skinheads that have a connection to Wolf.
As Nate settles into his cover, the film brushes against some interesting ideas but never bothers to develop them. For example, when Nate encounters the various splinter subgroups within the white supremacist scene — from scary religious whackjobs to benign-seeming suburbanites — the film mostly highlights their differences for the sake of queasy comedy, like a night-time wedding illuminated by burning crosses or a throwaway gag where two brainwashed kids casually mention how their dad built them a tree house to keep them safe when the “mud people” come for them. Again and again, Ragussis’s script places Nate in the midst of potentially explosive situations where a wrong move could jeopardize his cover, like an attempted gang attack on a mixed-race couple or a white pride rally where a black acquaintance recognizes Nate and calls him out, but Ragussis has the character simply talk his way out of all these situations with little muss or fuss. The character is hyper-competent, like a TV crimefighter; so why get too invested in his dilemma, when all the conflict will be neatly wrapped up after the fourth commercial break?
Despite the film’s inability to realize its thematic ambitions, the actors are committed and watchable enough to keep the film from being an utter slog. Radcliffe and Collette have a likable energy as simpatico teammates who both want to make the world a better place (although, oddly, their American accents sound phonier than usual whenever they’re together). In the crowd of characters Nate encounters, True Blood‘s Sam Trammell stands out with an intriguing portrayal of an educated, compassionate family man who also believes in the righteousness of his hideous, terrible cause, while The Knick‘s Chris Sullivan evokes quiet redneck menace as a religious separatist with a creepy training camp in the woods.
With its flat, procedural approach to telling its story, Imperium is destined to be a movie you end up watching on cable on a Saturday afternoon. Inoffensive (despite its subject matter) but not particularly memorable, it’ll pass the time well enough until something better comes up on another channel.
Imperium arrives in theaters and on video on demand this Friday, August 19.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.