Thursday, March 5, 2009

Echelon Conspiracy: They're spying on us!

Echelon Conspiracy (2009) • View trailer for Echelon Conspiracy
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, intense action, profanity and mild sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.09
Buy DVD: Echelon Conspiracy • Buy Blu-Ray: Echelon Conspiracy [Blu-ray]

Proving once again that an unpretentious B-flick can be much more fun than many of its puffed-up Hollywood cousins, Echelon Conspiracy is a cheerfully mindless good time at the movies.

Director Greg Marcks' fast-paced cyber-thriller has been released with little fanfare in this late winter dead zone, and that's a shame; Marcks' film deserves more attention than it's likely to get surrounded by the likes of Confessions of a Shopaholic and the pointless (albeit popular) remake of Friday the 13th.
Having finally realized that the messages on his spiffy new cell phone aren't
always helpful, Max (Shane West) and his somewhat mysterious new friend,
Kamila (Tamara Feldman) decide to ignore the silly thing ... at which point
our hero gets another text warning that failure to comply will result in his
swift and unpleasant death. (Have a nice day!)

Mind you, Echelon Conspiracy suffers from a serious case of deja vu, since screenwriters Kevin Elders and Michael Nitsberg have concocted a narrative that bears more than a passing resemblance to last year's much more expensive Eagle Eye. (One wonders which script was registered first.)

Both films, I hasten to add, are wholly preposterous ... but somehow Echelon Conspiracy is easier to go along with, probably because it doesn't take itself nearly as seriously.

Trouble-shooting software wonk Max Peterson (Shane West), having just completed a routine assignment in Bangkok, is surprised to receive a package at his hotel room. He finds a way-cool cell phone inside the box, which has no return address or indication of sender.

The phone springs to life on its own, and encourages Max to take advantage of an unpublicized bargain at the hotel, and thus stay an extra night. Max does so, and his world is rocked shortly thereafter, when he realizes that the plane he would have taken  had he left on schedule  has just crashed.

The phone's text messages subsequently encourage a trip to Prague, and a stay at a hotel/casino where Max has an amazing string of luck at slots and blackjack, by obeying the suggestions coming to him from ... somewhere.

This unlikely financial windfall brings him to the attention of casino security chief John Reed (Edward Burns), a transplanted American once employed with the FBI. While dodging Reed and his minions, Max also runs afoul of American covert ops agent Dave Grant (Ving Rhames); the latter gets first crack at our engaging young protagonist.

In due course, we discover that Max is the latest in a string of apparently random Americans who've received these phones; the only difference is that all the others are dead, each having perished under unusual circumstances. Grant believes that, as with the others, Max is being set up to perform some sort of function; the questions are what and why, not to mention who's pulling the strings.

Additional complications arrive courtesy of a chatty Prague taxi driver (Sergey Gubanov, as Yuri), who moonlights as a resourceful computer hacker, and a mysterious young woman (Tamara Feldman, as Kamila) with a come-hither smile and a suspiciously timed "meet cute" moment, which Max chalks up to more good fortune.

One must make allowances for poor Max, since much of his behavior belies his supposed intelligence. Trying to pick up a cute chick in a foreign country, after getting knocked out by her male companion, doesn't make Max the brightest penny in the piggy bank. But that's the nature of movies like this, which rely more on momentum than common sense.

And, in fairness, West makes an engagingly likable lead. He's well recognized from his ongoing stint as Ray on television's ER, and he delivers a reasonable blend of cockiness and affability. The odds quickly seem so badly stacked against Max that we can't help rooting for him, even if some of his actions warrant a head-shaking tsk-tsk-tsk.

Burns and Rhames add considerable class to this project; they're both solid actors who contribute more verisimilitude than their parts probably warrant. Feldman is a treat: far more than a token pretty face who gets an exciting showcase scene in which to strut her stuff. Gubanov is full of surprises, each of them adding an intriguing layer to the plot.

The cast is augmented by Martin Sheen and Jonathan Pryce in small supporting roles: the former as the Capitol Hill veteran to whom Rhames' Agent Grant reports, the latter as the cultured owner of the Prague casino. As often is the case with low-budget films of this nature, Sheen and Pryce probably weren't on set for more than a day or two, and they're obviously not part of the primary shoot; Sheen doesn't share screen time with any of the other stars, and Pryce only has a few scenes with Burns.

Most of the dialogue seems reasonable, although every so often Elders and Nitsberg allow a laughably corny one-liner to escape. When Reed reluctantly allows Max to talk him into a trip to Moscow, you just know the casino security chief is gonna conclude this argument by saying, as tight-lipped as possible, "But you'd better be right!" ... and he does.

The plot is confusingly twisty in the middle act, while we're trying to figure out who's good and who's bad, and who's trying to kill Max and who's only pretending. Some of these hiccups don't make sense in hindsight; fortunately, the details smooth out in the third act, at which point the film also shifts from standard espionage mode into its cyber-thriller main plot.

This leads to a climax that suggests Elders and Nitsberg are fans of the 1960s classic Star Trek, since the only possible solution to this story's pickle  the problem that Max's skills finally position him to trying solving  is (ahem) "borrowed" from quite a few science-fiction stories and two Trek episodes, notably The Changeling and The Ultimate Computer.

Indeed, I could almost hear William Shatner speaking some of Shane West's dialogue, as the computer-generated countdown worked its way toward zero.

None of this will matter, of course, to viewers seeking uncomplicated popcorn entertainment. West, Feldman and Burns build up considerable good will, and Marcks keeps things moving rapidly enough to camouflage the script's bigger whoppers. (One can only laugh at the suggestion that a warehouse super-computer comprising literally hundreds of massive servers can clone itself in a matter of minutes: clearly a plot contrivance concocted by people who know nothing about such things.)

Echelon Conspiracy held my interest from start to finish, and I certainly wouldn't mind watching it again some day. And really, that's the only factor that matters, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment