Friday, September 26, 2008

Eagle Eye: Flying blind

Eagle Eye (2008) • View trailer for Eagle Eye
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and relentless, vicious violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.26.08
Buy DVD: Eagle Eye • Buy Blu-Ray: Eagle Eye [Blu-ray]

This one requires a serious suspension of disbelief.

All momentum, very little logic and even less common sense, Eagle Eye is one long chase scene occasionally interrupted by reluctant dollops of exposition. It's pure 21st century Hollywood escapism: frantic, noisy and obsessed far more with the destruction of as much real estate as possible, rather than trifling details such as character development.
Rachel (Michelle Monaghan, left) and Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) can't imagine how
they'll get a mysterious suitcause — with contents that shouldn't be taken onto
a plane — through airport security. Little do they realize that assistance will
come from a very hidden ally...

It is, therefore, a serious comedown for director D.J. Caruso, who previously teamed with star Shia LaBeouf for the clever and well-plotted thriller Disturbia. That film took its time and allowed us to bond with its young protagonists, while also setting up some unsettling what's-he-really-doing tension with the mysterious guy who lived next door; by the time we hit the exciting third act, we genuinely cared about out heroes.

Not so with any of the stick figures in Eagle Eye, all of whom have less substance than off-market tissue paper. The only character liable to win our hearts and minds is young Sam Holloman (Cameron Boyce), and that's solely because he's an incredibly cute little guy. We like him for the same reason that we're instinctively drawn to puppies and kittens.

Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf), a serial slacker with no intention of embracing the career path proposed by his parents, has aimlessly traveled the world and kept himself going with odd jobs. His current address is a low-rent apartment in Chicago, his current paycheck earned as a counter clerk at a local copy shop.

He's brought back to the disapproving atmosphere of his family home by a senseless vehicular accident that killed his identical twin, Ethan, an Air Force public relations officer and pride of the family. After the funeral and a bitter confrontation with his father (William Sadler) — a truly clumsy, trite and utterly unbelievable exchange between LaBeouf and Sadler — Jerry returns home and finds that his bank account is $750,000 richer ... and that his apartment is stuffed with do-it-yourself terrorist supplies.

His cell phone rings; a woman's voice instructs him to leave the apartment, or he'll be arrested in 30 seconds. Jerry fails to leave, and is promptly — and none too gently — arrested by FBI agents. Supervisor Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton) conducts the subsequent interview, which of course goes nowhere; Jerry doesn't know anything. (Or does he, we begin to wonder, at this stage.)


Overly stressed single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) is even more jittery than usual, due to 8-year-old Sam's first big trip away from home: a train journey to Washington, D.C., where he'll play trumpet with his school band, as the kids perform at the Kennedy Center.

That evening, after a particularly emotional farewell — punctuated by the brief arrival of her deadbeat ex- husband, another useless character we never see again (detect a pattern here?) — Rachel receives a similar phone call from what we recognize is the same woman. Rachel is ordered to find a particular vehicle and drive it to a pre-determined spot, with the warning that failure to comply will result in her son's death by train derailment.

Jerry escapes FBI custody during a weirdly orchestrated industrial accident; after reluctantly following instructions that suggest he's being monitored every second, he winds up in the Porsche Cayenne Rachel is driving. She has, it seems, been ordered to pick him up and then drive them both elsewhere.

Traffic lights change to grant Jerry and Rachel an escape route. Pursuing police cars and FBI agents are violently dispatched like so many stray autumn leaves, in all cases by computer-controlled machines.

Right about now, Caruso's directorial approach — or the slick but dim-bulb script by John Glenn, Travis Adam Wright, Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott, or maybe both — becomes irritating on two levels.

First, Caruso fails to understand the proper way to orchestrate a car chase. Like so many other hack action directors today, he and editor Jim Page go for smash-cut editing and endless cutaways, all bouncing off the screen like shotgun pellets, so that it's utterly impossible to get any sense of who's in pursuit, or actual progress from one location to the next.

Although this chase sequence lasts five minutes or so, our heroes and their adversaries could be driving down the same single stretch of street, over and over again; we'd never know the difference.

(In fairness, Caruso does better later in the film, with a foot-chase between Morgan, Jerry and Rachel that takes place within the back-room luggage-processing conveyer belts at a major airport. This sequence is inventive and kinda cool, and it's easier to see what's happening, and to whom.)

Second, this film's casual disregard for collateral human victims is appalling. Granted, we don't see any broken bodies hurled from the dozens of cop cars or "innocent vehicles" that get smashed, mangled or hurled together, but the effect is no less gruesome. And while the plot eventually provides a sort of justification for this coldly analytical carnage, that doesn't make the mayhem any easier to endure.

It gradually becomes clear that Jerry and Rachel aren't the only ones whose movements are being monitored and, at crucial moments, controlled by the same implacable female voice on the other end of a phone.

All these other people are given odd instructions that we see are part of a horrifying plot involving a powerful new military-grade explosive, a sonic detonator and an as-yet unknown target.

Most people obey these instructions. Those who resist regret it.

The big questions, then: Who's pulling all the strings? And how can any terrorist network access every mode of communication and electronic surveillance?

You'll not obtain those answers from me, although I will say this much. When the unseen chess player is exposed, Caruso's film enters the realm of cautionary science-fiction and stands guilty of yet another charge: that of blatantly ripping off one of sci-fi cinema's greatest classics (made in 1968), and borrowing heavily from a second (1970).

And don't give me any guff about "homage." Disturbia was a sly homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. This is theft, pure and simple.

LaBeouf does what he can to provide Jerry with something approaching a personality, but the script gives him absolutely nothing to work with. OK, he has some unresolved issues with his smarter and savvier brother, but that's really not enough to explain why Jerry goes along with all this nonsense.

Rachel "behaves" because she fears for her son's safety, but nobody Jerry knows ever gets threatened. Why, then, does he continue to play along?

When we stop to analyze Jerry's behavior — later, after the film concludes — none of it makes any sense. And I'd also like to point out that "slacker" isn't synonymous with "stupid"; at a point in the third act, where everything should be blindingly clear to him, Jerry does something so incredibly dumb that you'll want to reach into the screen and box his ears.

Why, you may ask, would he be so dense?

Only because the script tells him to. Worst excuse in the book.

Monaghan fares better, in terms of giving Rachel at least a little depth. Monaghan has more to work with, and she's reasonably persuasive as a mother panicked into actions that she knows are illegal and dangerous.

Thornton, as usual, adds a delightful note of crusty, crisp irritability. He plays the same sort of role that Tommy Lee Jones delivered equally well in The Fugitive: the calmly efficient intelligence agent, accustomed to giving orders to respectful underlings who know they'd better snap to attention. Morgan's character isn't developed very well beyond that, but Thornton is enough of an actor to build an engaging role on minimal material.

Rosario Dawson is equally engaging as Zoe Perez, a resolute and resourceful U.S. Air Force investigator also assigned to Jerry's case, whose investigation first parallels and then merges with Morgan's efforts.

And that is this film's final, and perhaps most crippling, mistake: Thornton and Dawson are much better actors, and Morgan and Perez are much better characters, than LaBeouf's Jerry and Monaghan's Rachel. It's pretty sad when a director and four screenwriters can't properly maintain the focus on their actual protagonists.

But hey: I'm sure the video game crowd, at whom this film clearly is aimed, will lap it up.

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