The shock of seeing diminutive Daniel Radcliffe spout racial epithets and march in white power rallies serves as a morbid draw for the thriller Imperium. Playing an FBI agent turned undercover Neo-Nazi, the actor continues to do his level best to shed his enduring Harry Potter image. And though Imperium‘s scale is often small and its story well-worn, the stunt casting of Radcliffe, as well as recent real-world events and the film’s eye for detail, help to elevate the movie beyond the mere novelty of The Boy Who Lived hunting skinheads instead of Voldemort.
The threat of terrorism looms heavy over both our world and Imperium‘s, a fact that first-time director Daniel Ragussis exploits early and often. A tense opening finds nebbish Nate Foster (Radcliffe) and his FBI colleagues foiling an attempted suicide bombing, arresting a Middle-Eastern man in the process. The victory is Pyrrhic, as a sympathetic Nate realizes that the suspect was essentially coerced into carrying out the attack by undercover agents, in the process becoming an unwitting tool of an overzealous government eager to put away boogeymen. Nate, a sensitive soul who listens to classical music and is a pariah among his bullying co-workers, is put out by the loss but given a chance to redeem himself.
Enter Toni Collette as gum-smacking Agent Zamparo, a Type A hardass who’s intent on proving to skeptical bosses that homegrown terrorism is just as much of a threat as enemies from abroad. Zamparo’s zeroed in on radical white supremacists who could be close to inciting a race war by sowing the seeds of chaos. Her countermeasure? Convincing Nate to go undercover as a skinhead, like a less mellow version of Point Break with Patrick Swayze’s charismatic Bodhi replaced with a sea of racists.
The details of Nate’s mission are believably wrought, as he and Zamparo construct an elaborate backstory for him before he goes deep cover. Radcliffe sells Nate’s nerves well, as he sports a panicked look for much of the film, effectively a sheep among wolves whose only recourse is brains over brawn. The Neo-Nazi hierarchy leads to encounters with a hulking survivalist (played by Chris Sullivan), radical right-wing radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) and a seemingly innocuous suburban dad (Sam Trammell) who hosts neighbourhood BBQs for all his racist buds while his smiling wife serves swastika cupcakes.
That note rings a little false, but earlier scenes of Nate’s online research of terrorist attacks and the effects of dirty bombs are suitably chilling, especially in light of the tumultuous 2016 the world has endured. With fresh tragedies seemingly every other week, Imperium has to merely invoke strong imagery to jangle viewers’ nerves. It’s often chilling to dive into the underworld here, but the movie has difficulty sustaining that tension as it peaks midway through during a white power march that quickly devolves into chaos, providing a visceral ripped-from-the-headlines moment that speaks to the deep racial divide that exists in America.
As Imperium catches its breath and lets up on the gas, Nate continues to talk his way out of increasing tough binds. Unique characters lend a sense of novelty but the revelations are telegraphed well in advance, robbing them of power. The conclusion is sudden and abrupt, as if the movie ran out of money or simply refused to engage in the type of 3rd act car chase that most thrillers of its ilk demand. That could be interpreted as either noble or disappointing, depending on what viewers demand out of a movie likes this that walks a fine line between exploitation and intellectual rigour.
Along the way the film manages to showcase the thanklessness of undercover work and entire subsets of white supremacists that could be lurking out there in Trump’s America. Director Daniel Ragussis deigns to humanize some of his antagonists, while Radcliffe continues to distinguish himself in unique post-Potter roles. It fizzles out at the end and strains believeability , but Imperium works best when exposing the ugly core of hatred that can fester in men’s hearts and how compassion (and a badass shaved-headed Harry Potter!) may be able to salve it.
Directed by Daniel Ragussis
Runtime: 109 minutes