One of the things I hate most in the movies is when someone takes a good idea and ruins it. This movie has an intriguing premise, though it is not new, concerning just how much surveillance of all types there now is in the world. We are being watched, and the people watching don’t always have our best interests in mind. It is my understanding that there is now no public place you can stand in the city of London where you are not being observed by at least one camera. It’s to fight crime, they say, but it sure can be used to do other things. There was a good book and movie as far back as the early ‘70s, The Anderson Tapes, that explored this idea. The book was simply a compilation of audio and videotape transcripts made by various agencies that showed in great detail the planning and execution of a big robbery of an entire apartment building … and none of the tapes had anything to do with the heist! It was other people in the building who were being watched, often illegally. It was a bold idea, and the movie did a good job of it.
Almost 40 years later we are being watched much more, and there is now electronic capability to act remotely on this information. So this movie starts well, with an unsuspecting ordinary guy being ingeniously framed as a terrorist by depositing money into his bank account and shipping guns and explosives to his apartment. Some mysterious force is driving him, and a woman, and others, to do things they don’t want to do, under threats of prison, the death of a loved one, or other means. (One very effective plot device is that every time our hero gets in trouble, someone shows up to rescue him with advice or other help … and we realize that this person is being maneuvered, too, and we’ll never know what pressure he or she is under.) This is good stuff, but it quickly begins to go wrong. Soon we are in a miasma of idiot plot, implausible or impossible action for action’s sake, the mysterious force doing things that are not only beyond belief but sometimes even laughable. So who’s doing all the stuff?
Okay, SPOILER WARNING, but if you haven’t figured it out in the first 20 minutes, you just haven’t been paying attention. Does this ring a bell?
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.”
Or how about War Games, Demon Seed, The Terminator, or Colossus: The Forbin Project? Or if you want to get truly awful, I, Robot. It’s our old friend the renegade computer, doing what it deems is best in our own interest, which is this case is eliminating the presidential chain of command down to somebody it figures it can trust. By using a super-explosive during a joint session of Congress, triggered by a particular note played on a trumpet. (Say … haven’t I seen that idea before, too? Or something very like it. See Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much for a lesson in how to make a scene like that work.)
Like I say, this movie really pissed me off, because the bones of a good movie were all there, if only anyone had had the wit to hang some substantial meat on them. There were even some moments so over-the-top that I enjoyed them, and one particular sequence that was quite good: a chase through the baggage-handling bowels of a major airport, with pursuer and pursued being handled roughly in a giant game of chutes and ladders. Billy Bob Thornton is good in still another part of the plot that was badly handled and could have been good. It’s all so sad.