In the annals of movie villains, there are two who stand out above the rest—the “great whites”: sharks and Nazis. They’re fool-proof foils, because they’re innately dangerous, relentless and unlikable. “Imperium” tackles the latter, although of the neo-Nazi variety, who are nearly identical to their predecessors, just not as well dressed.
We come to know this group through the eyes of Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), an introverted cop who spends his evenings alone, reading and eating dinner at the same time; at work, he’s the brain who gets bullied by the muscles. In other words, he’s the last guy you’d want feigning ignorance. Nonetheless, one of his higher-ups (Toni Collette) sees something in him, and convinces Nate to go undercover as a skinhead when hints of a neo-Nazi terrorist attack begin to surface. After shaving his head—the opposite of “Serpico”—Nate dives headfirst into the underworld of white supremacy. After making a few friends, Nate is invited to a block party, where homely, middle-aged women serve cupcakes with a smile. It’s almost normal, until you notice the icing on the cupcakes make out a swastika.
On a base level, the movie is a gripping thriller. It pulls from the same bag of tricks that we’ve seen in previous undercover cop films, such as tense, drawn-out sequences of paranoia, brought on by the possibly of being exposed. As familiar as it may feel at times, the film’s sufficiently well-acted and directed so that it never bothered me. Plus, we very seldom see films centered on neo-Nazis, as it’s hard to get the audience to feel for them. The mafia kills people, sure, but they don’t discriminate.
While the reason for the infiltration is to hinder a possible plan to irradiate the city’s water supply–sounds like a job for Batman, if you ask me–the real reason comes from a writer’s perspective: to plant a virtuous outcast into a group of malicious outcasts and see what makes them tick. One of the members of the “cause” discloses that his parents were extreme left-wingers–his current station in life is obviously his backwards way of rebelling. Another member is just a lanky kid–clearly the result of bullying, not unlike Nate–looking to find strength in numbers. They’re not the embodiment of evil, but lost, misled or otherwise brainwashed.
In his ongoing struggle to shake the image of near-sighted wizard, Daniel Radcliffe conjures up an excellent, multi-layered performance. As both a mild-mannered FBI agent and a touchy skinhead, Radcliffe expertly portrays the duality of Nate Foster. In many ways, the film is just as much about understanding Nate as it is about understanding the neo-Nazis.
Almost having his cover blown, a skinhead confronts Nate on his jeans, which happen to be Levis—the product of Levi Strauss, a Jewish man—a major faux-pas in the neo-Nazi realm. It had never occurred to me until this moment how limiting the life of a neo-Nazi must be. To never watch “Seinfeld,” listen to Hendrix or go broke in a Baskin-Robbins–what quality of life is this? No wonder they’re so angry.
3.5 out of 5 stars