Aaron Eckhart has quite a diverse body of work to look back on — in the last two years alone, the actor has brought to the table both a complex portrait of a grieving father in the lauded “Rabbit Hole” and a more workman-like turn in the less-lauded “Battle: Los Angeles.” “Erased,” also known as “The Expatriate,” has been kicking around since fall of last year — its delayed release has been blamed on piracy concerns — the film being especially sought out by pirates who would otherwise gorge on blockbusters. This is a good bit of press for a little film, a compact Belgium-set thriller that tweaks the “Taken” formula ever so slightly and lets it rest on Eckhart’s capable shoulders.
The actor, gaunt but still retaining his good looks, here plays Ben Logan, an expat with a mysterious past. Making a home in Belgium along with estranged daughter (of course) Amy, Ben is slowly beginning to get a handle on life and work abroad. However, that’s when his office, bank account and effectively his identity disappear overnight, and he’s forced to go on the run with Amy in tow in order to a) survive and b) find answers to a needlessly convoluted international conspiracy. Luckily, Ben is ex-CIA, possessed of a very particular set of skills, skills he’s acquired over a long career that make him a nightmare for the people who are after him. Sound familiar?
Amy is played by Liana Liberato and we’d be lying if we said hers wasn’t a grating performance and an entirely unnecessary character. It isn’t Liberato’s fault, the actress ably filling the shoes of a scared teenager attempting to get a handle on things way out of her comfort zone. Unfortunately, Amy exists largely as a plot device, an opportunity to humanize Ben, and later on, inevitably, a bargaining chip.
It’s curious to see how many films have recently utilized the father-daughter formula — “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Taken” are just two examples, not to mention countless B-movies. We understand why it works — it allows members of the audience who can’t relate to the gruff, scarred killer to make a connection with his little girl, who eventually learns to hold her own. That said, it’s a cheap ploy and one that’s easy to handle poorly. Writer Arash Amel, whose other work includes the upcoming Nicole Kidman-starrer “Grace of Monaco,” gives female characters in “Erased” the shortest shrift — that includes Olga Kurylenko‘s thankless turn as a conflicted CIA agent who doubles as an exposition device.
“Erased” starts out strong, fully engaging the admittedly disturbing prospects of an American fish out of water without any credential to back up his claims. The mystery behind the liquidation of Ben’s office and soon his co-workers grows more and more compelling until it’s deflated 30 minutes in with an explanation that only serves to slightly confuse this critic. It all gets fleshed out, but for the rest of the running time, we are watching Ben catch up with us, and that makes for uninteresting cinema no matter how kinetic the action. Speaking of action, Ben squares off against forgettable heavies, some afforded dialogue, others the silent type, and director Philipp Stölzl does sturdy work making fight scenes intelligible.
The film’s apparent popularity overseas is perhaps due to its soured view on America’s role as a system of control/world police out to manage and, if necessary, destabilize foreign interests. Zealots may deem Eckhart damn near un-American for starring in a film that is so openly critical of American intervention. But maybe that’s us reading way too much into what turns out in the end to be a solid VOD release, with Eckhart lifting his leading role out of anonymity and claiming it with a driven if not outstanding performance. [B-]