Canadian helmer Vincenzo Natali, who enjoyed cult success with "Cube" (1997), bounces back with sophomore head-scratcher "Cypher." Pic's an equally rigorous brainteaser in which corporate paranoia substitutes for the labyrinthine interior thrills of Natali's first feature.

Morgan Sullivan - Jeremy Northam Rita Foster - Lucy Liu Ed Finster - Nigel Bennett Frank Calloway - Timothy Webber Vergil Dunn - David Hewlett

Canadian helmer Vincenzo Natali, who enjoyed cult success with “Cube” (1997), bounces back with sophomore head-scratcher “Cypher.” Pic’s an equally rigorous brainteaser in which corporate paranoia substitutes for the labyrinthine interior thrills of Natali’s first feature. Tight as a drum, and with more twists than a Chubby Checker revival concert, this engrossing, 100%-plot driven mystery has a good shot at fast international playoff, with molto ancillary potential. Though pic is dominated by a superb perf from Jeremy Northam, presence of currently hot Lucy Liu in the cast should provide extra marquee value.

The U.S. production, shot in Toronto in 2001, fell into a black hole after being readied in mid-2002; its North American distrib, Miramax, has been sitting on the pic ever since. Finally preemed at last fall’s Sitges fantasy fest in Spain, pic was released in Japan early this year and in France in March, and goes out in Australia and the U.K. this summer. “Cube” also found its market outside North America — in Europe and Asia — though “Cypher” is a far more marketable property.

Northam, who’s in virtually every scene, plays geeky Morgan Sullivan, an out-of-work accountant first seen under the main titles applying for a job with Digicorp. After rigorous tests, the Orwellian conglom, fronted by exec Ed Finster (Nigel Bennett), hires him as a corporate spy to infiltrate its deadly rival, Sunways Systems. At no point in the movie is it ever explained what the two companies deal in, other than valuable “data”; the point of the picture is pure corporate machinations.

Images have a cold, brownish, high-contrast look — color timing was done on an intermediate digital transfer — and the compositions are coolly geometrical, summoning a world not far from that of classic David Cronenberg. With his toothy grin, nerdy specs and teflon bonhomie, Morgan is the ultimate American salaryman, living in a bland ‘burb, bullied by his lawyer wife and apparently with only one interest — sailing to remote places.

Given the identity of Jack Thursby Morgan is dispatched to spy on a cosmetics convention in Buffalo, as a test. There he meets femme fatale Rita Foster (Liu) who keeps turning up during Morgan’s subsequent assignments as he criss-crosses the States. In Boise, Idaho, she claims he’s being brainwashed by Digicorp and offers to give him a drug that will block the process, as well as stop his recurring, nightmarish headaches. Morgan agrees, and soon finds himself offered a job as a double agent by Sunways agent Frank Calloway (Timothy Webber).

Both Digicorp and Sunways use Morgan for their own ends. Meanwhile, Rita, who works for a shadowy character known as Sebastian Rooks, has her own agenda for Morgan, who in turn is totally confused as to his own identity.

Kafkaesque plot may not stand up so well to a second viewing, once the various twists are known, but the script by first-timer Brian King has the mathematical precision of a Swiss clock that’s consistently intriguing — and doesn’t lose its impetus halfway. (Even the film’s coda manages to neatly tie up one remaining loose end.) That’s partly due to Natali’s direction, which respects the density of the plotting while also bringing a style of its own to the material: An escape by Morgan from an underground vault has the pure suspense of a much larger-budgeted movie.

However, it’s the performances that elevate the pic beyond a simple intellectual exercise. Adopting a rotund, perfect middle-American accent, and changing body language, Brit thesp Northam has considerable fun in the central role, as a kind of Hitchockian everyman; Northam’s transformation at the end is almost into that of a different actor. Liu, who often has difficulty bringing warmth to her characters, is genuinely noirish and sexy here as the tough Rita, and both Webber and David Hewlett (as a subterranean Sunways techie) also bring some humor and human personality to the picture.

Tech credits are all smooth, with Canuck lenser Derek Rogers (“Cube”) and p.d. Jasna Stefanovic conjuring up an anonymous, near-future world from existing locations and spartan sets.

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Production: A Miramax release of a Pandora presentation of a Gaylord Films production. (International sales: Pandora, Burbank, Calif.) Produced by Hunt Lowry, Paul Federbush, Casey La Scala, Wendy Grean. Executive producer, Shebnem Askin. Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Screenplay, Brian King.

Crew: Camera (color), Derek Rogers; editor, Bert Kish; music, Michael Andrews; production designer, Jasna Stefanovic; art director, Jim Phillips; set decorator, Megan Less; costume designer, Tamara Winston; sound (Dolby Digital), Stephen Bourne; stunt coordinator, Alison Reid; visual effects supervisor, Bob Munroe; animation-visual effects, CORE Digital Pictures; associate producer, Richard J. Anobile; assistant director, Bill Spahic. Reviewed at Puchon Fantastic Film Festival (closing film), South Korea, July 16, 2003. Running time: 90 MIN.

With: Morgan Sullivan - Jeremy Northam Rita Foster - Lucy Liu Ed Finster - Nigel Bennett Frank Calloway - Timothy Webber Vergil Dunn - David Hewlett

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