Review by Tyler Hicks
With a bevy of superheroes and shoot-em-up’s saturating theaters everywhere, we’re in dire need of smart thrillers than rely more on brains and less on brawn. Enter Imperium, a partially true story about a meek FBI agent who infiltrates a white supremacist gang to root out possible terrorists.
In many ways, the film is a throwback to the taut crime thrillers of the 70s. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Nate Foster, the aforementioned FBI operative who is more comfortable at his desk with a book than he is in the field with a gun. This makes him an easy target for his macho colleagues, but also catches the eye of Toni Collette’s Angela Zamparo, a hard-nosed supervisor who wants to use Nate’s smarts and people skills to collar some domestic terrorists before they start a race war. Radcliffe and Collette nail their characters, and each becomes the perfect foil for the other.
With a shaved head and a new personality, Foster enters the perilous world of white power gangs, and starts to unveil a major terrorist plot. In his debut feature, writer-director seamlessly infuses classic crime drama motifs into a character piece about the quest to do good in a world replete with evil. This quest is not just Nate’s—many of the white supremacists he encounters believe that their hate-fueled “activist” work is for the greater good, and some of them are more like Ward Cleaver than Timothy McVeigh.
Ragussis based his story on the real-life drama of FBI agent Michael German’s undercover work, and it shows in Imperium’s realism. His “family man next door” depiction of white power criminals is unlike anything we’ve ever seen on film or television, and every time you think you know where the film is headed, Ragussis veers into new, unexpected terrain. The result is an ambitious, multi-layered thrill ride that tackles big ideas about law enforcements and the futility of good intentions.
Not much is known about Radcliffe’s character other than what is stated above, but it doesn’t matter: his nuanced turn erases any and all doubt that he isn’t up for the challenge of big, meaty roles. His wild-eyed performance grows more impressive with every crack in his character’s façade, and you may even forget that beneath this racist veneer is a simple man just trying to make a difference.
Collette and co-stars Tracy Letts and Sam Trammell (True Blood) are equally impressive, as everyone is able to craft a multifaceted character regardless of their screen time. This is a credit to the script, which never lifts its foot off the gas and cleanly avoids every thriller cliché in the book.
Stories as well-paced as Imperium is few and far between, but perhaps that’s something to be thankful for. The immersive tale by Ragussis, Radcliffe and co. offers us a rare respite from summer blockbusters, and also reminds us that you can conjure movie magic without firing a single bullet.
The genius of Imperium lies in its powerful storytelling, and the only drawback is that there aren’t more movies like it.