A Vietnam veteran cruises through the wasteland of Los Angeles in a beat-up old van crammed full of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. It's 2004, and the US is being bombarded with frantic news of shadowy terrorist plots about to happen and sleeper cells all over the country just biding their time until they launch an attack that will make 9/11 look like a dry run. The THREAT is IMMINENT, you see; they're all around us, and this is no time for doubt or wimpy French words like "nuance"!
Our man rolls along, gathering samples of water, shredded documents, etc. and bringing them back to his comrade, who runs a crime lab in his garage. (Richard Edson here, playing his usual role as the put-upon sidekick/brother) Something big is in the works, and these two heroes, working deep cover, intend to be the ones to stop it. One day the van driver happens to catch a man in a turban hauling boxes of borax to a chemical plant and begins tailing him; this is undoubtedly part of a plot. Soon after, the man in the turban is killed in a drive-by shooting, and now we know for sure something is up; perhaps two rival terrorist groups are working against each other. Thank God our hero is watching, getting ready to bust it all open. Great set-up for a trashy action movie, perhaps starring Bruce Willis, or even better, Chuck Norris, right? Too bad. It's a slow-paced, meditative, subtle mood piece by Wim Wenders instead, and more will be revealed. (I intend to keep the spoilers to a minimum, though. It's better if you watch it for the first time without knowing what happens.)
The deep-cover operative has a niece: the daughter of two missionaries, a guileless young Christian girl who just flew back from the West Bank where she had been demonstrating with a group of Israeli pacifists against the building of the wall separating the Jewish settlements from the Palestinian population. She's come to deliver a letter from her deceased mother to her only living relative in the States; meanwhile she takes a job in a rescue mission in LA, serving the growing homeless population. We're with this girl as she prays, e-mails her friends, worries about the world, and gives herself over to service. Your agnostic movie reviewer marvels to himself that here is a credible character exhibiting all the tenets of Christianity, but you would never find the likes of her anywhere in an ostensibly "Christian" piece of cinema like Left Behind: The Movie. Wonder why? Hmmmmm...
The plot ends up taking the two characters to Death Valley, where we find out the secret of the borax conspiracy and learn a few more things, while Wenders indulges his love of residential American desert landscapes. I'll leave it at that. See this movie for yourself.
At the end, two people in New York stand in the site of Ground Zero. One begins to complain and the other essentially says to shut up and listen. Then Leonard Cohen sings.
Other musical notes: at one point we hear what sounds like a growly modern pop-punk song with the chorus: "It's expensive being poor/because everything costs more!" The singer turns out to be T.V. Smith, formerly of seminal London punks the Adverts. Nice going, T.V. A lot of songs feature a German singer named "Thom" who is not Thom Yorke, he just sounds like him. The songs comment on the story and set the mood; Wenders is a rare filmmaker whose rock scores actually seem to belong in his movies rather than functioning as product placement.