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I’m a sucker for undercover cop flicks. Suspense is almost always guaranteed, and my favorite seated position when watching movies is at the edge of my seat. When I read Imperium centers around an FBI agent, played by Daniel Radcliffe, infiltrating a group of white supremacists, which hasn’t been done in film before, my interest was piqued. The trailer alone, linked below, will make you tense. This is writer/director Daniel Ragussis‘s first full-length feature released to the general public (his first, 2008’s Haber, was only shown at select festivals), and he aimed to deliver the thrills and mind stimulation. The end result was a rather by-the-numbers informant drama that showed seldom thrills interspersed around Radcliffe’s career-best performance.
It might be tacky to bring up Harry Potter anytime you discuss Daniel Radcliffe’s new movies, but he spent 10 years on film as the Boy Who Lived. To say Radcliffe’s role in Imperium is the largest departure from Potter is justified. Radcliffe certainly took full advantage and sunk his teeth into this character, Nate Foster, more than he has any movie character post-Potter. This can be partially credited to director Daniel Ragussis’s methods or to real-life former FBI agent Michael German’s stories on which this movie is based. However, at this stage of his career, it feels like 27-year-old Radcliffe is simply hitting his stride as an actor.
Radcliffe brings a relatability to his performance, whether it’s as his real FBI agent self or his undercover neo-Nazi personality. I say that with ambivalence not being lost on me. This movie took the impossible task of humanizing the members of the neo-Nazi movement Nate worms himself into. To my recollection, that hasn’t been accomplished in a movie since 2001’s The Believer starring a really-young Ryan Gosling. Both movies are filled with characters that are otherwise very intelligent, feel authentic, and have families like everyone else. Of course their beliefs are utterly deplorable, to say the least, but that’s the nature of mixed emotions such great performances and writing can give you.
When it comes to the supporting cast, there don’t seem to be any standouts. The actors and actresses are there to occupy familiar tropes in undercover cop pictures. Toni Collette plays Angela Zamparo, Nate’s superior who handpicked him for the job, and she’s always on his side. Conversely, you have Nestor Carbonell portraying Angela’s superior, Tom Hernandez, who literally exists to crush her ideas. We’ve seen such conflicts in cop movies before, and there’s nothing new here. The casting team definitely did their job efficiently in filling the roles of raging, erratic skinheads. The only actor that subverts that predictability, at least cosmetically, is Sam Trammell as Gerry Conway. He’s the rare breed of a neo-Nazi with a full head of hair, a wife, a child, a calm demeanor, and high intellect that happens to contain irredeemably horrible beliefs. Although this is not realistically the archetype of the white supremacist movement, the switch in expectations is welcome.
Earlier I name-dropped former FBI agent Michael German. I did not mean to undersell as German is critical to this movie’s existence. He’s a former FBI agent who spent 20 months undercover among white supremacists/militants, and wrote a book on his experience. He collaborated with director Ragussis in bringing this story to the big screen, and safely changed specifics to protect the real counterparts involved in these operations. If he acted half as convincing as Nate did in the movie, I still couldn’t guess how he maintained such a cover for almost 2 years.
Another commendable aspect to Imperium is also the Will Bates‘s musical score. The music takes a rather ambient, beautiful tone most of the picture, which helps make Nate’s spying experience all the more unsettling. Then when there’s those couple scenes of pure tension, the composition starts matching the faster pacing. The way the music is structured from beginning to end is nothing short of alluring. Another example of Bates’ masterful scoring can be found on the Hulu original series, The Path.
The positives outweigh the negatives in Imperium, but negatives can be spotted. Much of this movie’s story goes through the motions of the typical cop drama without taking many risks. I wouldn’t classify the white supremacy personified aspect a risk I’m referencing. I’m primarily referring to the way the story flows. Additionally, there was a fantastic build-up to what could have been an unforgettable, rousing finale. Instead we receive a final showdown of sorts that ends rather suddenly, as does the movie itself. These perceived flaws don’t ruin the movie by any means, but had to be acknowledged.
The actor famous for portraying Harry Potter is Sorted into House Nazi temporarily. Imperium ends up as an occasionally nail-biting movie, but is carried by Radcliffe’s surprisingly vulnerable, career-best performance. While Radcliffe’s performance is absolutely riveting enough to witness, the movie itself is only a recommend for die-hard undercover cop thriller fans.
Did you manage to catch Imperium, available on demand and in select theaters? Comment below and let’s discuss it like civilized human beings!