'Deja Vu'

"Deja Vu" is a misnomer. This elaborate, action-packed thriller centers on a cutting-edge FBI surveillance unit that enlists ATF agent Denzel Washington to solve the horrible bombing of a jammed New Orleans ferry.

The film is tense and engrossing. But it lacks exactly what the title advertises: the sense of inexplicable familiarity that should haunt you as the story unfolds and leave you all a-tingle when it ends.

The director, Tony Scott, and the screenwriters, Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii, do a great job of booby-trapping the plot -- making it impossible to describe without giving something away.

They do a not-so-great job of evoking the dread or joy people get when they feel they know a person or a place that they've never met or experienced.

The FBI unit employs sci-fi technology to manipulate time and space; it allows ATF man Washington to visit scenes leading up to the ferry bombing from wildly different vantage points.

Still, the overall effect is not "deja vu" but "auto focus." Hazy pictures gradually come into definition as the moviemakers dribble out their information.

Director Scott has mastered the technique of using a camera as a visual eye-dropper, then putting the film together like a liquid mosaic. Whether or not you buy the flim-flam science, the script's tricks and surprises keep the movie compelling: they include a brand new wrinkle on the lane-shifting car chase.

Still, only Washington's unusual power to convey cautious vigilance -- his megawattage wariness -- and the searing urgency of newcomer Paula Patton -- as the beautiful key to the case -- suffuse the movie with any emotional momentum. The supporting players have some pungent moments, including the deceptively alert Val Kilmer as an FBI agent and Adam Goldberg as the chief FBI techie, who runs on curiosity, mischief and Red Bull. And the snatches we see of post-Katrina New Orleans, including still-ravaged districts, bring the film the poignant aura that the narrative alone should generate -- and, sadly, doesn't.

"Deja Vu" ultimately just simulates flesh and blood on the nuts and bolts of an overly gimmicky suspense film.