It’s an intriguing idea in theory to hitch the reincarnation beliefs of Eastern religions to a futuristic scenario of gifted souls with perfect recall of their past lives, split into good and evil factions at war over humanity’s survival. But Infinite is a soulless grind. Juiced up with a succession of CG-enhanced accelerated chases and fight action interspersed with numbing bursts of high-concept geek speak, Antoine Fuqua’s sci-fi thriller isn’t helped by a lead performance from Mark Wahlberg at his most inexpressive. His character is basically a charisma void with a permanently furrowed brow suggesting brain strain. It’s no surprise Paramount shunted this thrice-delayed theatrical release to its streaming platform.
Adapted by Ian Shorr (with a screen story by Todd Stein) from D. Eric Maikranz’s novel The Reincarnationist Papers, originally self-published in 2009, the film plays like an overcomplicated imitator of The Matrix that never pauses long enough to foster interest in a single character. It’s busy and bombastic but dull, explosive and assaultive but never exciting, with a James Bond entry’s worth of international locations — Mexico City, London, Thailand and Cambodia among them — that whizz by in a blur of sameness. Most of the plot seems like laborious exposition for a franchise that will never happen. If we’re lucky.
The high-speed, Fast & Furious-style opening takes place in the Mexican capital in “The Last Life.” A man driving a red Ferrari, later identified as Heinrich Treadway (Dylan O’Brien), zips through the streets with cop cars and other vehicles in pursuit, including one carrying his comrades, Leona (Joana Ribeiro) and Abel (Tom Hughes), who remind him of the importance of keeping “the egg” out of their adversaries’ hands. They have just enough time to reaffirm their love before an assassin blows them to smithereens and Treadway takes a death-defying leap out of his car as it flies off an under-construction bridge.
Back in New York City in “This Present Life,” Evan McCauley (Wahlberg) wakes up disoriented from that vivid dream and heads off to interview for a security position at an upscale brasserie. But a background check revealing his history of mental illness has already ruled him out. Fortunately, he has a sideline handcrafting samurai swords using a process not seen since feudal Japan — an art he somehow remembers without ever having studied it. He sells them to gangsters in exchange for antipsychotic meds; when he gets shorted on a deal, things get messy and he’s detained by police.
The sword has barely been entered into evidence when it draws the attention of Porter (Toby Jones), a senior operative who works out of a swanky book-lined study tricked out with the nifty finger-swipe hologram technology that’s become a sci-fi cliché. He urges his associate Nora Brightman (Sophie Cookson) to investigate with haste, reasoning that if they know about the sword, their enemy Bathurst does too.
Sure enough, Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in glowering form) turns up at the prison where Evan is being held and starts playing Russian Roulette while quizzing him about his past lives until Nora busts him out with an armored sports car. Another big chase follows with a hailstorm of bullets before she whisks him off in a private jet to an isolated mountain retreat somewhere in Asia, promising to sort out his jumbled memories.
Nora informs Evan that he has fought Bathurst in different incarnations going back centuries, and that the visions in his head are not a product of schizophrenia, as countless doctors have stated. She believes he is an Infinite, one of a secret society of some 500 people across the globe able to recall their past lives and reconnect in each new one. His development of this skill has been stalled by a steel plate in his head after a teenage suicide attempt. Just summarizing this plot is exhausting.
Nora’s cohorts are distinguishable more by their cool looks and names — Garrick (Liz Carr), Kovic (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), Trace (Kae Alexander) — than by character definition. They belong to the group of Infinites known as the Believers, dedicated to the protection and growth of all humanity. Bathurst and his heavily armed militia are part of their opposition, the Nihilists, who believe the eternal cycle of reincarnation is a curse that must be ended. Hence the egg, a silver filigree Fabergé-type tchotchke capable of unleashing some kind of chemical weapon that attacks the DNA of any living organism. Yikes!
Anyone paying attention will know by now that Evan was once Treadway so they need to unlock his memory to find the egg before the Nihilists. The obligatory quick training montage refreshes his fight skills, but his neural network is a little more sluggish, so the Believers rush him off to their brain guy in London, Artisan (Jason Mantzoukas), for a “total mental reboot.” By this time that was precisely what I wanted. There’s a moment of suspense when Artisan’s radical methods appear to have gone too far. But Evan/Treadway and company are soon back in action, with Bathurst’s goons on their heels.
The most prolonged of the ensuing clashes takes place on a plane between Bathurst and Evan, and if you’ve seen The Old Guard, you’ll be recalling how much more fun it was to watch Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne go mano a mano in similar circumstances, even if they didn’t have a rotten egg in the bomb hatch. There is a female face-off at Bathurst’s grand estate in Scotland, where Nora tackles his sneering sidekick Shin (Wallis Day) in order to break into his library and free the souls of all the Believers imprisoned there in digitized limbo. Or something. Among them is Nora’s lost love…Abel.
That might explain why the chemistry in her many scenes with Evan feels so stiff. Or maybe it’s Wahlberg’s wooden delivery of the deadpan cracks that are meant to pass for humor. One can imagine the original casting of Chris Evans working better in that regard, though it’s still a stretch to think he could have made the contorted plot less of a yawn.
Fuqua has a solid enough track record both with character-driven thrillers like Training Day and more pedestrian popcorn like The Equalizer and its sequel. He handles his chores here with slick cynicism, though it’s hard to discern much serious investment in a story that shrugs off its spiritual dimensions in favor of one visceral smackdown after another. The attempt toward the end to add some philosophical heft by underlining the hope that each life contains the potential to add up to something bigger than itself is not going to convince anyone.
In the absence of substance or thematic texture, Fuqua capably steers cinematographer Mauro Fiore to keep his dynamic camera in constant motion, and slaps on plenty of Harry Gregson-Williams’ tense score, with its urgent percussion elements. Still, it’s a mercy when Infinite finally ends.