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Idealistic FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) goes undercover to take down a radical fundamentalist homegrown terrorist group. The up-and-coming analyst must confront the challenge of sticking to a new identity while maintaining his real principles as he navigates the dangerous underworld of white supremacy.

FBI big cheese Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) instructs Nate on his new assisgnment
FBI big cheese Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) instructs Nate on his new assignment

You’ve got to hand it to Daniel Radcliffe, he’s certainly doing his level best to distant himself from a certain boy wizard. Not for him the easy, handed on a plate roles that will surely have come his way, nor the large, immediate paydays that doubtless would have resulted. Since wrapping on the final Harry Potter flick in 2011, Radcliffe has taken roles on stage involving nudity and rude things with horses (Equus), portrayed famous beat poet Alan Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings (2013), portrayed a man who spouts horns (Horns) and is playing a corpse in the upcoming, offbeat Swiss Army Man. Now here he is as Nate Foster, a geeky FBI agent who shaves his head and goes full undercover into a coven of white supremacists to expose their nefarious plans to build a dirty bomb.

Amazingly, and surprisingly, Radcliffe almost pulls it off. Up until now, he has never given a performance where he hasn’t come across as desperately earnest and wanting to be liked, traits that would have led the character of Nate Foster to have seemed ridiculous. But in Imperium, based on the true exploits of FBI agent Michael German, and written by German with Radcliffe, he manages to convince. Just about.

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Nate squares up against a ‘fellow’ supremacist

Having a strong supporting cast certainly helps, as does the truly frightening tale of such an extreme, hateful and violent group of people thinking of themselves as true Americans. The best moments are, as with most undercover films, when it looks like Nate might be rumbled and the stress his continued lies and double-life place him under. But there’s also too much talking, too much telegraphing of the real bad guys (which could have made for an excellent and surprising reveal had it been played more subtly) and Radcliffe, for all his pretty much spot-on accent and immersion, is still trying a little too hard.

Blackwell (Chris Sullivan); scary and hairy
Blackwell (Chris Sullivan); scary and hairy

Still, it’s a subject matter – homegrown fundamentalist terrorism – that rarely sees the light of day on the news, never mind the big screen. For a studio film treading a similar path we have to go back all the way to 1999 and the vastly underrated classic Arlington Road, and not many people saw that one. Not many will venture out to see this either. Harry Potter spouting vile, racist dialogue? Many people won’t want to witness such a thing. But that’s why Radcliffe keeps choosing roles like this.

It’s a huge and long shadow that Harry Potter casts. It made Radcliffe’s career and still has enough might to get him leading roles and projects greenlit. But it may also be a character he will never fully escape. In the meantime, it grants us films like this – without Radcliffe’s involvement, Imperium would probably never have been made – and for that, we should be grateful.

Imperium had a limited theatre and online release in the USA August 19 and will debut on a select number of UK screens September 16.