Daniel Radcliffe in Imperium (Lionsgate Premiere)

Daniel Radcliffe in Imperium (Lionsgate Premiere)

Daniel Radcliffe brings possibly more baggage with him than any modern actor. After all, he is Harry Potter, perhaps the most iconic character in the world’s imagination since James Bond. We watched him and his fellow child actors grow up in that film series, as though in a massive studio franchise version of Boyhood. And this was incredibly risky. Just because little kids are cute at 11, there’s no guarantee they’ll remain so at 16. That’s also to say nothing of their acting skills, and who was to say that they were capable of becoming movie stars?

It’s worked out for Emma Watson, who seems poised to headline big movies and be the fantasy of boys everywhere, but it hasn’t worked out the same way for Radcliffe. With a face and stature that doesn’t exactly scream matinee idol, he’s more a character actor whom the world will always look at and see a boy wizard. Yet Radcliffe has somehow used this to his advantage, choosing projects that become thrillingly subversive just by his very presence. As a result, audiences will be intrigued to see “Harry Potter as the Devil” or “Harry Potter as a farting corpse” or “Harry Potter as a FBI agent undercover as a Nazi skinhead.”

Here, Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a FBI agent who is extremely cerebral and very isolated from his more action-oriented colleagues. He’s the guy who blasts classical music in his headphones while doing immense research that leads to the other agents going out and making arrests. For some reason, his boss (Toni Collette) thinks he’ll be a good candidate, despite his lack of field experience, for infiltrating Nazi groups who might be plotting terrorist attacks. She’s right. Foster’s outsider status is analogous to how the Nazis perceive themselves.

Director Daniel Ragussis is not reinventing the wheel when it comes to undercover stories. Most scenes involve Foster walking a tightrope in a struggle not to blow his cover. Thankfully Ragussis and his cast have the skill to create scene after scene that is alive with tension.

What feeds the suspense is how scarily relevant the film is in 2016. This year has a major-party presidential candidate in Donald Trump, whose campaign is fueled by white resentment. No matter how badly he might be projected to lose at this point, he still got way farther than anyone should be comfortable with. That’s because there is a populace that feels belittled and angry. As a country, we’ve generally overlooked or swept them under the rug, but that just won’t do anymore. We have to approach them on a human level and figure out a way for all of us to evolve together. That’s what Imperium is ultimately about. As Foster becomes more entrenched in the Nazis’ world, he starts to see them as human beings who are wildly misguided.

The film will go down as possibly the best time capsule of 2016 and of America’s anxieties reaching a boiling point. It might take the discrepancy of a boy wizard shaving his head to pique your interest, but you should have a lot to mull over when the credits roll.

Directed by Daniel Ragussis
Released by Lionsgate Premiere
USA. 108 min. Rated R
With Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, and Sam Trammell