Killer thriller? Not quite, but it's entertaining enough to be worth a look.
Colin Farrell seems to be in every other film coming out lately, but seeing as he's a good actor I'll let him away with it. Here he plays James Clayton; nice guy, could use a shave, recently graduated top of his class at MIT. He and his friends / co-developers have developed a remarkable new wireless software called Spartacus which can magically take over any computer in it's range, somehow. The story rightly moves swiftly on before this is exposed as the exceptionally silly concept that it is, although it returns to bite us later. While Clayton's at his part-time barman job, a man introduces himself with a cheap conjuring trick. Look kids, it's Al Pacino! (Applause).
After dispensing of this David Blaine nonsense, he introduces himself as C.I.A. recruiter Walter Burke. He wants James to come join this years intake of merry C.I.A trainees in a charming out-of-town bijou training facility. Initially Clayton is skeptical, blaming the C.I.A. for not finding the body of his father declared dead in a plane crash over Peru, much to Clayton's dismay, leaving psychological scars that are still shown today. Burke piques his interest with some oblique hints about his father being an operative, which is pretty much to driving reason for Clayton's joining up and what motivates him to succeed in spook school.
And succeed he does, learning all manner of interesting spy related tricks. He and his class members are introduced to bugging devices that are 'manufactured biologically', which perhaps means something to someone, which dissolve over the course of a few days when in use. They are taught how to fool lie detectors, which usefully sets up the fact that you can't trust a word anyone in the film says. Although if you've seen the trailer you'll already know this. Their most difficult challenge in a world where everything is a test is the delicate art of car-bombing, the subtle intricacies being worth of a thousand words alone, but in a nutshell they have to:
This fine masterwork of intrigue puzzled myself and the rest of the audience, but director Roger Donaldson is astute enough to skirt around the complexities of the issue.
Throughout the film Clayton's wandering eye settles on fellow proto-spy Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), who he's conveniently paired with on a variety of exercises after which they fall in lurve, in a way which through luck or skill never comes across as quite contrived as it does in, say, every rom-com ever. Things are going along nicely enough until on a surveillance exercise, a black van pulls up alongside Moore and Clayton and bum-rush their show, with Clayton dragged off to a grimy cell for a spot of torture. The nasty chaps go through exactly the same torture sequence that's in previous Farrell flick Hart's War, proving that the old Nazi ones are indeed the best. He thinks it's all a test, as he's been trained to. After several days, that's seeming less likely. Eventually he breaks and give up the names of his instructors, at which point the wall of the cell falls away and whaddya know, it was a test.
Clayton gets drummed out of the C.I.A, only to have Burke reappear to say that his dismissal was a convenient cover story. He suspects Layla of being a mole, and puts Clayton on the case to find out who she's working for and what she's stealing. Clayton is given a low-level data processing job in Spook H.Q, Langley, and rekindles his romance with Layla. He finds out she's lifting parts of a spiffy new computer virus, an entirely new kind that can somehow live in things like wall sockets, batteries, wooden chair legs, Jesus and thin air. Strangely my description is only marginally more ridiculous than the films so again, lets' move swiftly on before this is exposed as the exceptionally silly concept that it is. Odd though, seeing as there must be some computer geeks writing this as I can't think of any other reason to prominently feature Clayton using the not-particularly-mass-market browser Opera.
I'd normally not give away spoilers, although the trailer for the movie pretty well signposts exactly what's happening from this point in. There's the usual twists that come from living in a world where you cannot trust anyone and everyone is an expert at lying. 'Trust no one', as Burke says in an X-Files inspired homily. Who is Layla working for? Who is Clayton working for? Who does he think he's working for? Can we trust Burke? He has a beard, so clearly has something to hide. But so does Clayton. Can we trust him? Do the beards cancel each other out? Where's my washboard?
There's the obligatory finale in a disused, dark warehouse where Burke and Clayton have a battle of wits, and to the film's credit pretty much ties up all the questions raised above. In terms of the machinations of Burke and Clayton, the script manages to explain away all the important strands that may have seemed a little unconnected. It's a pity that the dialogue can't really back up the performances that Farrell and Pacino provide. Pacino doesn't pull anything out of the bag that we haven't seen before, but he still has a captivating on-screen presence that covers over lines that are more Spy Kids than The Ipcress File.
Farrell is equally charismatic, whether bluffing his way through a poker game or mocking his interviewer's banal psychoanalytical questions. He's not called on to display a terrific range of emotion, but manages to convey his shock and bewilderment at the event's he's caught up in well when the occasion calls for.
Thinking back on the plot I'm struggling to remember how it managed to fill up it's nigh-on 2 hour runtime without feeling like it was inserting obvious filler material. This is perhaps not a good thing, nevertheless it's a sign that I found it an enjoyable two hours. Director Donaldson may have a shaky grasp of I.T. for approving such bizarre concepts but displays a good eye for pacing, as everything moves along quickly without seeming forced, and while not a particularly action based film the few scenes that are have a commendable sense of urgency and flair to them.
Perhaps the trailer has overly influenced my view of the script, as it really gives away all the major plot twists. This has left me looking out for a few more to work their way in, but sadly they never materialised, leaving me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction about it. The seeds for them are certainly laid, with the earlier premise of 'everyone could quite easily be lying' coming in very useful to keep the audience guessing until it becomes obvious that everything is going to pan out as expected from the trailer.
Still, it's certainly fun watching Burke playing Clayton like a fiddle, and his rant against the C.I.A. at the end is what Pacino does best. The film doesn't set its stall as a comedy, but provides a few nice one-liners for Pacino and Farrell who handle them with aplomb.
You may be forgiven for expecting some more overtly political statements, particularly about the C.I.A's role in a post Twin Towers America and abroad but these never occur, giving us only a passing and unrelated reference to Iran. The film concerns itself purely within the scope of it's own organisation, which is perhaps an opportunity missed to distinguish itself from the norm.
As such then, it can only be recommended as popcorn fodder, rather than any kind of thought provoking work. Still, not a thing wrong with that, and a more enjoyable and better acted way to spend two hours than The Life Of David Gale was.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Colin Farrell (James Clayton)
Bridget Moynahan (Layla Moore)