Rumor has it that Antoine Fuqua and Mark Wahlberg were caught off guard — and understandably pissed — when Paramount announced that it was scuttling the planned theatrical release of the “Shooter” duo’s new action movie, and debuting it instead on Paramount+, an embryonic streaming platform that currently seems to have more episodes of “The Office” than it does paid subscribers. In hindsight, Fuqua and Wahlberg might come to see this bit of COVID-era corporate synergy as a blessing in disguise: At least they’ll have a good excuse when no one remembers “Infinite” in three months. Or six weeks. Or tomorrow.
That may sound harsh, but in some respects it may not be harsh enough. For one thing, it really is that easy for a would-be summer blockbuster to sink into the bottomless abyss of streaming content, never to be heard from again. For another, “Infinite” is derivative to the point that it can be hard to remember what you’re watching even while you’re watching it. A lukewarm soup of second-hand tropes that’s served in a portion too small to satisfy even the least discriminating thirst for slop, “Infinite” borrows so much from such obvious sources that it never bothers to establish an identity of its own.
Considering that Wahlberg plays a deathless amnesiac who doesn’t know that his soul has drifted from one (male) body to the next for thousands of years as part of a forever war between rival forces, it’s fitting that his latest star vehicle is blithely recycled from a litany of better movies that it doesn’t seem to remember. About that premise: Adapted from the self-published 2009 novel “The Reincarnationist Papers” by D. Eric Maikranz (who recently made good on a promise to give ten percent of his pay to any reader who managed to sell a Hollywood producer on the book’s potential), “Infinite” sets the stage with some introductory narration that’s delivered with all the alien grace of a politician eating pizza at a campaign event. We’re told that some people called “Infinites” are gifted with a perfect memory of their past lives; the Believers wish to use their accumulated knowledge for the betterment of humankind, while the Nihilists… don’t.
After millennia of trying, the latter faction has developed a weapon that can evaporate all life on Earth à la Thanos, and the former is determined to hide it from them. That explains why generic hero guy Heinrich Treadway (an under-used Dylan O’Brien, who spends literally ninety percent of his brief screen-time locked in a swordfight atop a giant crane) is racing through Mexico City with a mysterious briefcase when the film begins, and why his pursuers are so angry not to find “The Egg” near Heinrich’s body when they finally catch him.
From the wreckage of an inelegant and clumsily speed-ramped car chase, we cut to: Present-day Manhattan, where Heinrich has reincarnated as Evan Michaels (Wahlberg), an oblivious burnout who struggles to keep a job because of the strange voices in his head. The doctors have diagnosed him as schizophrenic, but that doesn’t explain why Evan’s brain came pre-installed with so much esoteric trivia, or why a random white dude knows how to forge the Hattori Hanzo-quality samurai swords that he gives to drug dealers in exchange for under-the-counter lithium.
Just when it seems like “Assassin’s Creed” and “The Matrix” are going to be locked in a custody battle for control over where this is all going, Chiwetel Ejiofor shows up in Morpheus cosplay to tip the balance with a silly, unpretentious performance that also screams: “Remember when I was in a marginally better version of this movie last summer?”
If you’ve ever doubted the slack-jawed nuance that Keanu Reeves brought to the role of Neo, or wondered how goofy that character would’ve been in the hands of someone who seems constitutionally incapable of playing any of the emotional states that exist between cockiness and confusion, “Infinite” has all the answers. The laws of physics simply don’t make it possible for someone to suspend their disbelief enough to accept that Mark Wahlberg is inhabited by an ancient soul that has fought on the right side of history since before the birth of Jesus.
The guy has a unique screen presence that operates on a level all its own, and this is one of those increasingly common projects where he tries to push back against it. The “say hi to your mother for me” energy is just off the charts in the scene where Ejiofor’s Bathurst vomits up several thousand years’ worth of exposition while Wahlberg just stands there scrunching his face. That vibe only grows stronger after Blonde Trinity (or whatever Sophie Cookson’s absolute mannequin of a character is called) rescues Evan, takes him back to Believers HQ, and proves that he’s the chosen one during a dojo sparring match where he’s pushed to “remember” that he knows kung fu.
Ian Shorr’s screenplay has a similarly difficult time finding a sense of flow amidst a war that’s been raging for eons; if “The Egg” McGuffin provides a clear sense of urgency, the race to find it is haphazard and illogical. Characters don’t track within the span of individual scenes, let alone over the course of a dozen lifetimes. Liz Carr, playing a Believer who’s comfortably at peace in the body of a woman with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, is the exception that proves the rule among the film’s bland heroes, but the problem is even worse among its bad guys.
Ejiofor is all scenery-chewing and no substance as the Nihilist who’s willing to destroy the world so that he can leave it, but he’s also developed a technology — the “Dethroner gun” — that permanently freezes someone’s consciousness unto a hard drive, so… why not just use that on himself? Where did his crisis of faith begin, and why does he waterboard himself with gasoline for fun? Surely there are better ways of sampling a sense of death while also expressing a quick glimpse of movie villain mania? And if souls can reincarnate into bodies of different abilities, sizes, and races, why do we get the distinct impression that Heinrich and Bathurst have always been men?
Such questions pile up and compound each other as the Believers and Nihilists chase each other around the world like cats and dogs, as the fate of life itself hinges on a series of dull action sequences that are draped in the threat of being dethroned, but stubbornly refuse to make clever use of reincarnation in any other way. The possibilities would seem, well, infinite in an action movie where anyone on the street could secretly be a deathless pawn in an eternal chess match, but the staggering franchise potential of a high-octane “Cloud Atlas” is only hinted at in passing.
The imagination just isn’t there. Instead, we get Wahlberg and Ejiofor punching each other in a watered down version of the already dull plane fight from Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy,” by which point we’ve come to understand why the Nihilists are so extreme: “Infinite” only runs 106 minutes, but you’d do anything not to live through it again.
“Infinite” is now available to stream on Paramount.