David Fincher is entirely too pleased with himself.
The director who made his name with stylish, seemingly endless tracking shots in “Fight Club” is at it again with “Panic Room.” The camera careens effortlessly through windows and stair banisters, across countertops, and inside garden hoses and light bulbs.
Fincher probably should have eased up on the technique just a tad; he uses it so many times, he’s clearly just showing off. But the breathtaking visuals are just enough to distract from the flawed script from David Koepp (“Mission: Impossible,” “Stir of Echoes”). It begins with a weak premise and collapses into an unbelievably ridiculous series of twists.
Having said that, the virtuoso camerawork makes “Panic Room” worth seeing, as does Jodie Foster’s characteristically confident, controlled performance.
Foster — who took the role after Nicole Kidman got injured — stars as Meg Altman, who’s recently divorced from her wealthy husband. Meg must’ve gotten a huge settlement, because she and her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), can afford to move into a 4,200-square-foot, four-story brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, just steps from Central Park.
The place has six fireplaces, hardwood floors throughout, an elevator, and — we’re told ominously — a panic room, an impenetrable chamber off the master bedroom for hiding in case of a burglary.
Who knew panic rooms even existed? Are they just for the rich? Or Dick Cheney? Except at the White House, they call it the Situation Room. (The film’s production notes say panic rooms are a variation of a castle keep, a bomb or storm shelter — and the White House Situation Room.)
Meg and Sarah find they need the room sooner than they think — too soon, really; we should have been lulled a little longer into the contentment of their new life. Three bad guys break in on their first night there.
Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) show up to steal millions of dollars they believe the previous owner stashed in the hidden room.
Meg spies on them through surveillance cameras that are mounted throughout the home, then rouses her sleeping daughter, and the two scurry into the room just in time. It’s a given that they’ll make it inside — that’s the whole point of the movie — but the sequence in which the bad guys chase them in there is shot and edited so flawlessly, it’s suspenseful anyway.
The rest of the movie consists of Meg and the burglars trying to outsmart each other, with a wall of steel and stone between them. Impetuous Junior wants to bust his way into the room using a sledgehammer. Quiet Raoul wants to gas them out with a propane tank and a garden hose. But Burnham — the criminal with a heart of gold — wants to talk them out peacefully.
We don’t know much about Meg’s background — like what she does for a living, for example — but somehow, inside the tiny room that initially paralyzes her with claustrophobia, she cultivates a MacGyver-esque resourcefulness than enables her to counter their every attack.
Although we’re asked to suspend disbelief, we always know in the back of our minds that Meg and Sarah will get out alive; if they didn’t, it would be an independent film.
And when they do, they’re forced to fight for their lives in an unnecessarily violent attack that’s too cartoonish to be climactic.
“Panic Room,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for violence and language. Running time: 110 minutes. Two and a half stars (out of four).