Lieutenant Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) arrives in this railway station with his partner Donovan (Costas Mandylor) and the hunt is on for SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe) across the city. But this is no ordinary city, it is a virtual reality world where the miscreant, a computer-generated personality, is most at home, and Barnes is no ordinary cop either. He is actually a convict thanks to the encounter with the maniac who murdered his wife and child which saw him accidentally kill in a fit of rage, and thus is behind bars, but this VR scenario is a chance for him to redeem himself as he puts himself forward as a test subject. However, SID could be more dangerous than anyone could imagine...
According to the screenplay, SID is in possession of one hundred and fifty different serial killer personalities, which immediately begs the question, were the programmers mad themselves? Was anyone really surprised when the computer crafted murderer went on a rampage? Although this was the nineteen-nineties, where the eighties obsession with computers had evolved from worries about them going out of control to a more virtual reality, "they can do anything" type of set-up, the issue with the rogue programs or viruses more or less being confined to the machines was bypassed by devising methods of them invading the real world. Director Brett Leonard had experience with that sort of thing with The Lawnmower Man.
But here he went one further, as the buzzword "nanotechnology" was all the excuse the film needed to have its villain run amuck as a genuine person thanks to the bots that enable him to walk around and other, more superpowered acts, as those killers in his psychological makeup prompt him to ever more dastardly deeds. As Barnes works out, what SID wants is publicity, so there was a dash of media satire thrown in there as well as he commits dreadful acts so he can get on television. Although the internet was mentioned, this was one of those curious science fiction movies just pre-millennium where the technology was integral, but they still had not predicted everything to any degree of accuracy.
Nobody has a mobile phone, for example, despite this supposed to be set in the near future, and as for SID becoming a viral video, forget it, everyone just tunes in to the television news to catch his misdemeanours. If you think this rendered Virtuosity (which is... probably a word?) terribly dated and looking ridiculous as to how past it the version of things to come it displayed was, then you would be absolutely correct, this was essentially a seventies cop thriller dressed up in nineties speculative fiction trappings, and very difficult to take seriously, not least thanks to Crowe who seemed to be having a whale of a time as he camped it up. The other actors looked to have been instructed to downplay their roles to appear more grounded and authentic, which only increased the contrast with Crowe's pantomime.
Obviously movie technology as far as the imagery went was surpassed very soon after, another reason why the ambition here was overtaken by the limitations of what they were attempting. That said, there was some disparity between how sincerely they apparently wanted to be approached by the audience and the temptation to just say, what the hell, let's go nuts with this because the spectacle is what it's all about. Therefore we were given standard cop movie stuff like chases on foot or stand-offs or holding characters to ransom and even that time honoured trope, the head to head with hero and villain where they get to discuss their points of view at the exact time that lives are at stake. But also silly business such as SID regenerating himself with glass, being super-strong to excuse his ability to carry on despite ludicrous amounts of bullet holes, or simply his general persona as a sort of Joker lite. There was a pretty decent cast backing up Washington, but isn't it often the way that the daftest science fiction had the most overqualified actors playing it out? If you wanted to see how the nineties got the future wrong, then this was a good place to start. Music by Christopher Young.