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Imperium (2016)

Lionsgate
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/1/2016

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/27/2016

In my recent review for The Infiltrator, I wrote about movies which feature law enforcement personnel going under cover, and how that film missed the mark. What it worked on many levels -- acting, directing, period costumes -- the story simply didn't feel fresh, as the lavish world of drug smugglers is simply too familiar at this point in time. If you'd never seen a movie about this subject, The Infiltrator may have been more impressive, but it would be an also-ran to many viewers. Imperium is an excellent example of how a movie can take a very tired idea and by simply placing it in a new environment, completely re-invigorate it.

Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a mid-level FBI agent who spends most days transcribing the recordings of wire-taps. He lives alone and doesn't socialize much at the agency. Which is why he's very surprised when he's tapped by Agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) for a special assignment. She is convinced that too much attention is being paid to foreign terrorists and that no one is watching domestic right-wing groups. She wants Nate to go under cover and infiltrate a group of Neo-Nazis, as she is convinced that radical talk show host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) is involved in the theft of radioactive material. After the operation is begrudgingly approved, Nate shaves his head, gets a new wardrobe, moves into a ramshackle apartment, and approaches Vince (Pawel Szajda), a local skinhead leader, as an informant has reported that Vince has ties with Wolf. But, as Nate begins to meet more and more people in the cause, he quickly learns that there is a very organized movement happening which involves a heavily-armed militia and affluent, well-educated believers. Now, it's up to Nate to maintain his facade and gather enough evidence to bring them down.

I'm not sure how intentional it was on the part of the filmmakers, but Imperium is an incredibly timely movie. Stories of racism and racial inequality seem to dominate the news, a phenomenon which seems quite weird, as we are some 50 years removed from the peak of the civil rights movement. And yet, race and racism continues to play a big role in American society. The thing which remains just out of sight is the extreme racism which occurs on the so-called "alt right", which is the area that Imperium explores. These Neo-Nazis and white supremacists operate outside of mainstream society, but they are very organized and some of them have very distinct missions in sight. Imperium takes us into this world and it does it in an incredibly sly way. These groups are new to Nate, and he does as much homework as he can. Then, we go on a journey with him, as he meets the very basic thuggish skinheads and works his way through to the Nazi-like militias and the very charming sponsors.

And this is where Imperium gets really scary. Sure, the skinheads which Nate meets are scary, as they are barbaric and reckless. But, the militia, headed by Andrew Blackwell (Chris Sullivan, who is currently playing a lovable guy on This is Us), is even scarier, as they have a compound near Washington, D.C. (as well as one in Ohio), they have guns, and they seemingly have plans to disrupt society. These guys are stoic and organized, but they still come across as zealots, as they wear "brown shirt" uniforms. However, Nate's biggest shock comes when he meets Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), a very nice, well-educated suburbanite who just happens to be a huge racist. Gerry seems very normal on the surface, as he's a caring father and immediately takes a liking to Nate. He even sounds sympathetic and rational when he's discussing his racist beliefs, and this is what makes him truly terrifying. It's easy to write off the skinheads and militants as wackos, but it's easy to see how Gerry's level-headed approach could be seductive.

Imperium is based on the fieldwork of FBI agent Michael German and Writer/Director Daniel Ragussis has done a great job of adapting those experiences. The movie doesn't pull any punches when it comes to its portrayal of the right-wing individuals which Nate encounters and it shows us just how real this threat can be. (The film sites many real-life examples of this.) Radcliffe, whom I convinced just does whatever he pleases, throws himself into the role and we are right there with Nate experiencing everything. The movie maintains a nice level of suspense, as it trots out the expected scenes where we are convinced that Nate's cover is going to be blown. But, other than that, and one other cliched plot-point which I predicted, the movie steers clear of the more stereotypical parts of this kind of story and maintains its course. Imperium may not be ground-breaking, but it takes us into a world which we rarely see portrayed in a serious way in film and it will certainly make you think twice about some of the things going on in America right now.

Imperium would make a great companion piece with American History X on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Lionsgate. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good, and despite the dark subject matter here, Ragussis has chosen to use very natural light levels, which look fine here. The level of detail is good, as the image is never soft and the depth is fine. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.6 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a very standard drama track for the most part, but a concert scene and a riot do provide notable stereo and surround sound effects. That second scene really delivers with various sounds coming from the front and rear channels.

The Imperium Blu-ray Disc contains a few extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Daniel Ragussis and Writer Michael German. "Making Imperium" (19 minutes) offers comments from the cast, creative team, and German, who discuss the story, themes, and the characters. They then talk about the challenging subject matter and the struggle to deal with this decidedly different world-view, German shares some of his own experiences from working on cases. "Living Undercover" (4 minutes) offers comments from Radcliffe and German, who talk about the real-life aspects of the film (this repeats some quotes heard in the previous piece). "Cast/Crew Interviews" offers a series of interviews with Ragussis & Radcliffe (28 minutes), Radcliffe (6 minutes), Trammell (11 minutes), and German (30 minutes). The final extra is a TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2016 by Mike Long