"The game lasts 90 minutes. That's a fact. Everything else is just theory." After laying out those simple rules, the German thriller "Run Lola Run" gives us the object of the game: Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to come up with 100,000 mark or gangsters kill her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). Ready. Steady. Go!
The writer-director of "Run Lola Run," Tom Tykwer, must have heard the phrase "moving pictures" at an impressionable age and taken it literally. For the 81 minutes this toy of a movie skitters and leaps across the screen it almost never takes a breath. Like the Tykwer-composed techno music laid end to end on the soundtrack, the filmmaker is in love with rhythm, propulsive motion, variation that only comes after repetition. During the chill-out sections -- the scenes between Lola's father and his mistress, or the interludes with Lola and Manni in bed -- the movie stops dead in its tracks. But Tykwer always finds the beat. An enormous hit in its own country, "Run Lola Run" is Tykwer's fourth movie but only his first to be released here. The pacing of the film is so quick that it's hard to tell if Tykwer has any feel for character development or directing actors. He does, however, have a canny sense for how a kinetic piece of filmmaking should look and move.
"Run Lola Run" isn't, except for the performance of Franka Potente, a particularly warm movie, and in a few stray moments Tykwer even succumbs to smartass nihilism. But I think it's important to emphasize that he's a filmmaker who appears genuinely to work by instinct rather than calculation. The feel of "Run Lola Run" is nothing like that recent piece of pint-sized Tarantinoism "Go." I'm afraid, though, that it might seem indistinguishable to moviegoers who are put off by the way Tykwer unleashes a barrage of zooms and jump cuts before you settle into the movie and the tricky, off-kilter editing. But Tykwer is out to tickle the audience rather than pummel it. He wants us to be as breathlessly caught up in Lola's race against the clock as she is, not hanging coolly back, congratulating ourselves on our own hipness.
On a very basic level, "Run Lola Run" shows a faith in the romantic possibilities of movies. It isn't charming or magical, but Tykwer isn't embarrassed about creating a world where anything is possible: last-minute betrayals or last-minute miracles, the sudden spurts of good luck or bad luck that can make you laugh at the sheer movieness of it all. He's the type of romantic who's distinctly of this moment, sprung from music videos and Gameboys. He approaches his story like a kid who finds himself defeated early on by his favorite video game and who keeps whacking the reset button until things turn out like he wants them to.
"Run Lola Run" contains three different versions of Lola's run, each structured around the people and obstacles Tykwer introduces during the opening sequence. Those obstacles become the movie's -- no pun intended -- running gags, and like all good running gags, there's no telling when or how they'll turn up next. There's also no telling how any sequence will look. "Lola's" sprint of a premise and pace isn't enough for Tykwer. Sequences are in 35 mm, video, even animated; he and cinematographer Frank Griebe use slow motion (in one sequence so detailed you can see the muscles in Lola's face ripple under her skin as her feet hit the pavement), jump cutting, hand-held cameras, aerial shots and some particularly fluid split-screen sequences that divide the frame two and even three different ways. (These are perhaps the best thing in the movie; you take in the beauty of the execution even as the device ratchets up the suspense.)
"Run Lola Run" doesn't go beneath the surface, and that's a problem when Tykwer sticks a tentative toe in the pond of philosophical musing (it turns into a bog that throws him off step). But sometimes surfaces have their own delights, and "Run Lola Run" is a love song to the speed of movies, urban living, pop music. Lola's predicament is a revved-up version of the way modern life can feel, an endless race against time and chance. As Manni, Bleibtreu doesn't offer much to the camera; everything about him seems thick, opaque, a drag on the movie's wellspring of energy. It doesn't matter much to us whether Manni lives or dies -- except for Lola's sake. The outcome of the game is less important to Tykwer and to us than the pleasure of watching it being played. You want to see Lola keep running the same way you want to hear a great pop song again as soon as it ends.
The 24-year-old Potente gives Tykwer the image that pulls his movie together. Whatever visceral lyricism the film achieves seems to emanate from her bones. With a shock of bright-red hair and functional street garb (gray tank top, orange jeans, Dr. Martens) she's stripped down, ready for action. Emotionally, Potente seems all essentials as well. She has the look of every wised-up yet naive street kid you see hanging around record stores or clubs; it doesn't faze her that her boyfriend is running errands for a gangster, but she reacts to the possibility of his being killed as if it had never before crossed her mind. That naiveti gives the movie a human edge (it might seem just an exercise in style without her). The determination in Potente's running limbs, and the anxiousness visible in her dark eyes and in the set of her downturned mouth, combine to give her the look of someone who hopes for the best and expects the worst. You fall for Lola not because of her devotion to Manni, but just because she can be devoted that fiercely. She's a punk Pegasus on an errand of love. In "I Wish," one of several soundtrack songs here composed by Tykwer and sung by Potente, she sings, "I wish I were a beating heart that never comes to rest." Luckily, for the movie and for us, whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. Potente pumps strong and true from the first frame to the last.