It appears Daniel Radcliffe has become comfortable in his post-Harry Potter career, stretching and showing off his acting chops with diverse and complex roles that seem designed to play against type. In 2016 alone, Radcliffe has appeared in such diverse films such as the absurd “farting corpse” in Swiss Army Man and now as an FBI agent going undercover as a neo-Nazi in Imperium, a true-ish thriller inspired by Michael German’s book “Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former Undercover Agent”.
Imperium follows neophyte FBI Agent Nate Foster (Radcliffe), an up-and-coming analyst recruited to take down plotting extremist white supremacist terrorist groups at the behest of ambitious and gum-chewing Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette). This is Foster’s time to shine as his career thus far has been limited to paper pushing and desk work, leaving his fellow agents to mock and haze him.
Against his ideals, and very out of character for the wine sipping and lonely Foster, he assumes the role as a neo-Nazi, one well-read and versed on the subject. This means shaving his head, and immersing himself in their ideology and lifestyle in order to take down radical white supremacist groups who may be planning nefarious acts with illegally obtained Caesium-137, a radioactive element used to create the dirtiest of dirty bombs.
Radcliffe isn’t all that believable as an FBI desk jockey, perhaps owing to his scrawny physique and baby-faced demeanor. But once he shaves his head and extends his arm in Nazi salutes, his performance, visually, does improve somewhat. He fares better as a skinhead, though never quite feels like he’s fully committed in his role as an undercover agent. It’s understandable that Foster’s transformation into an undercover hate monger is counter to the persona introduced in the first act, but the film seldom offers the necessary depth to justify this conflict.
It also seems like Foster is a little too bright and the radical supremacists are little more than dimwitted boneheads; a fact one character even brings up. In many scenarios, Foster is entirely too methodical and able to weasel himself out of tight situations, often coming off suspiciously nervous with perfectly practiced answers. All this goes over the heads of radical leaders, most of whom – to a fault – are painstakingly (and unconvincingly) trusting of Foster, a person they’ve just met and know little about to begin with.
As the audience, we’re in on the con but never quite reach a point where we’re really lost in it; our journey is not Foster’s journey and greater insight into his inner machinations and struggle would have elevated this film to greater heights. Instead, we’re left to objectively witness a neatly put together and entertaining film that lacks depth of character.
Beyond characterization, in any scene where Foster is on the verge of being caught, these moments prove to be effective as isolated incidents, but overall hinder the film as they happen way too often. Imperium aims for the intensity and suspense found in similar, superior films like Donnie Brasco or even The Departed, but offers so many of them you start to see the outcome before it fully unfolds.
The difference between those films and this one is the care the former take in establishing and fleshing out characters, something this film avoids like the plague, as the characters fall deeper in their cover.
While entertaining, Imperium is thinly spread out and frustrating in its lack of psychological complexity. Never do we feel that Foster is in way over his head or conflicted about what he sees, which might have helped Radcliffe’s performance. By the end, you realize how straightforward this story is, opting instead to entertain with thrilling moments as an accessible film for casual audiences.
If Imperium benefits from anything, it’s having interesting subject matter, which the filmmakers may have assumed could write itself, and to some extent it does. Yet, no matter how engaging the topics of race and white extremism in America may be, the film is superficially crafted in both characterization and subject matter. The film’s tagline reads “Defend your nation. Become your enemy,” but we know, or find out, very little about the ‘enemy’ that we don’t already know. We’re to understand these people vicariously through Radcliffe, but we very seldom do, as if to become a neo-Nazi merely requires shaving your head and sporting Doc Martens. Ultimately, that’s exactly what this film does: the bare minimum.