Snarled loops of time travel have proved a surprisingly versatile and rewarding fantasy-cinema trope in recent years, from the big-budget likes of “Edge of Tomorrow” to such enterprising indies as “Predestination,” not to mention comedies (“Palm Springs”), horror (“Happy Death Day”), romance (“Before I Fall”) and more. “Volition” makes a worthy addition to that roster: a crime drama whose scruffy protagonist has the gift of clairvoyance, but ends up having to repeatedly mess with the past to fix lethal mistakes to come. Tony Dean Smith’s clever thriller lands July 10 on digital platforms, where it should continue to be as well-received by sci-fi fans as it has been on the genre-festival circuit.
Living above an auto shop, lagging on rent, his appearance an unpromising cross between aging hipster and Ratso Rizzo, James aka Jimmy (Adrian Glynn McMorran) exudes a scraping-by vibe unimproved by his landlord’s eviction threats. If he feels like he’s “stuck watching the rerun” of his own life, that turns out to be for very good reason. Before we quite suss why, however, he’s corralled by fresh-outta-prison Sal (Frank Cassini) and hulking strong-arm Terry (Aleks Paunovic) into a meeting with boss Ray (John Cassini) at the legit-biz front for his illegitimate dealings.
Ray is in possession of $10 million in diamonds “from some guys in Zimbabwe who stole ’em from some dudes in Angola.” He wants to sell them, naturally, but due to prior felonious antics is being closely watched by the FBI. Ergo he needs Jimmy’s unique expertise: He has “visions” that foresee the future, and can thus hopefully figure out how the jewels might elude the Feds’ detection. A handsome honorarium is exchanged, and our hero takes the stones home for his paranormal thingie to meditate on. Sal and Terry are meant to make sure the diamonds don’t travel any farther afield.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Sal and Terry themselves plan to heist those same goods, a scheme that psychic Jimmy predicts just in time to scramble out the window — taking with him Angela (Magda Apanowicz), a transient damsel just rescued from back-alley distress. They scram in her truck, pursued by the bad guys (eventually also including Ray, who hasn’t realized his own flunkies are betraying him).
At the film’s 40-minute point, all land on the doorstep of Elliot (Bill Marchant), an old mentor who holds the key to Jimmy’s ability to “see things that haven’t happened yet.” He also possesses a serum that provides his erstwhile guinea pig/protégé means to revisit the past. This becomes essential when the present grows lethally violent. So Jimmy goes backwards to prevent disaster — but his efforts only seem to pile up further tragic complications. And every time Jimmy backtracks, there’s another, increasingly debilitated duplicate of himself running around, trying to correct the mistakes of the pre-existing incarnations.
Though well-cast and acted, these characters aren’t exactly deep; in fact, they have practically no backstory at all. But that’s OK, as “Volition” is the kind of enterprise in which the corkscrewing intricacy of plot mechanics are everything, the onscreen personnel just pawns in its gamesmanship. Despite some yakking about quantum physics, as well as debate over preordained fate versus free will, the film basically requires one giant leap of faith to work at all. Fortunately, the Smith brothers’ script (co-writer Ryan also produced) is succinctly propulsive enough to make that easy. Tony Dean’s direction is likewise well calibrated to glide past improbabilities before they even register.
It’s a film more gritty than stylish, but in any case with all key contributions lashed to the service of a tricky narrative with scant gratuitous fat or flamboyance. (The one notable repeated flourish, a giant super-slow-mo closeup of a bullet in mid-flight, seems a bit cheesy as a result.) It’s billed as a feature directorial debut, but the Smiths have been working together and separately on various TV movies and other projects for some years. You can sense the accumulated expertise that makes “Volition” at once lean and densely packed.
It’s not the most profound, spectacular, funny or novel of recent time-travel movies. But it’s the one that best exploits this subgenre’s twisty potential while remaining faithful to the tenor and aesthetic of a traditional, enjoyably humble crime meller. The sci-fi angle that separates it from a noirish 1940s B-pic or a street-smart 1970s thriller is underlined by Matthew Rogers’s pulsing synth score.