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MOVIE REVIEW: New 'Total Recall' benefits from talent

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This film image released by Columbia Pictures shows Jessica Biel , left, and Colin Farrell in a scene from the action thriller "Total Recall." (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures - Sony, Michael Gibson)

Total Recall

(PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Even though it was quite good, enough time has passed since the original 1990 version of "Total Recall" to allow for a remake. As always, some purists will whine loudly but they really don't have a lot to complain about. Benefiting greatly from 20-plus years worth of technological industry improvements, this is a solidly constructed, well-acted, visually dazzling hunk of summer popcorn fare.

Apart from the obvious audio/visual superiority, the new version benefits greatly from the casting -- especially the leading man. With all due respect to Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who created an imposing presence in any film just by showing up -- he's not the greatest actor. Always hovering just below the industry's A-list, Colin Ferrell is much more talented and is better able to pull off the considerable physical demands of the role.

Based on the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Dream it For You Wholesale," this "Recall" more resembles "Blade Runner" (adapted from another Dick story) than its predecessor, which is a big plus. Set in the year 2084 after the apocalypse that left only Europe and Australia inhabitable, the world in the new version is bland, cold and appropriately dystopian. Shooting most of it at night and in the rain also lends it an even closer kinship with "Blade Runner."

Quaid (Ferrell) gets up every morning in Australia and commutes to his job as a mechanic in Europe in roughly 20 minutes via "The Fall," a subway train of sorts that travels through the Earth and not around it. Also every morning he's also awoken by the same nightmare where he and an unnamed accomplice (Jessica Biel) are trying to escape from police that bear a strong resemblance to the white-clad armored soldiers in "Star Wars."

Certain he's wasting his life performing repetitive manual labor a half a world away from home, Quaid acts on a tip from a new co-worker and checks out REKAL, a service that implants its patrons with customized memories. After a dose in the arm with this or that, they can go anywhere and do or be anything they wish. Whether it is because of a glitch in the system or part of Quaid's memory package, he's now a secret agent and the target of ... well, everyone.

Casting his "Underworld" franchise leading lady (and off-screen spouse) Kate Beckinsale as Quaid's wife Lori, director Len Wiseman saves himself a whole lot of time and unnecessary guesswork. Having already played a butt-kicking vampire four times (five if you count "Van Helsing"), Beckinsale is an old pro at this action thing and here (in the role originally played by Sharon Stone) her acting chops more than match her considerable physical skills. Much the same can be said for Biel whose character is left purposefully vague until near the film's halfway point.

The casting winning-streak continues with Bryan Cranston in the slightly-underused role of Cohaagen, the de facto world leader and its savviest politician. Exhibiting the kind of unwavering ruthlessness present in his character in recent seasons of "Breaking Bad," Cranston is wonderfully loathsome and makes us all but forget the original Cohaagen (Ronny Cox).

Not to lavish too much praise on the technical aspects of the film, but Wiseman's set and design teams really went above and beyond. The landscapes, gadgets and costumes look futuristic but not so much so and are always rooted somewhat in the real world. The CGI is so impressive you can't tell what is actual or virtual -- and not a single frame of it is shown in 3-D.

Wiseman and his two writers also give us plenty of hearty chuckles along the way, the best being a scene where Quaid is inside a bank's safety deposit box viewing room. Pay close attention to who is depicted on a stack of paper money. It got the best laugh at the screening.

For all the filmmakers get right, they also make the huge mistake of overextending their welcome. At just more than two hours, it's not nearly as taxing or overwrought as "The Dark Knight Rises" but should have had gone through at least one more heavy editing session. If this version of "Total Recall" was 15 minutes shorter, it could have been outstanding instead of just very good. (Sony/Columbia)