There was a time when James McTeigue’s ascendance as a top tier blockbuster director seemed assured. After working with the Wachowskis on “The Matrix” trilogy as first assistant director, he made his debut feature with the smash hit “V For Vendetta,” which the siblings endorsed with a producing credit. But from there things took a decidedly downward turn. The next team up between the Wachowskis and McTeigue, “Ninja Assassin,” was a flop, and so too was his outing behind period pulp piece “The Raven.” And things continue in a downward trajectory with “Survivor,” a thriller that lines up decent actors for a credulity straining affair that aims to honor American law enforcement for stopping terrorist attacks post-9/11, but winds up trivializing their job in the process.
Milla Jovovich leads the movie as Kate Abbott, a hot shot security expert brought in to help the American embassy in London look over visa applications for the United States to try and root out suspected terrorists attempting to get into the country through entirely legal means. But she’s too good at her job, and when she starts poking her nose into the affairs of the seemingly innocent Dr. Emil Balan (Roger Rees), Kate is unknowingly at the edge of discovering a major terrorist plot and conspiracy.
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Enter, The Watchmaker. Played by Pierce Brosnan and his Tom-Cruise-in-”Collateral” haircut, he’s an internationally known assassin and terrorist who we’re told has thus far eluded authorities by getting reconstructive surgery. Clearly he has the best doctor in the business because he looks like Remington Steele. At any rate, as his nom-de-plume suggests, the deadly and deadly handsome hitman gets his results with unerring precision…except when it comes to Kate. Tasked with taking her down so he can move ahead with a bigger plot that involves Dr. Balan, his first attempt to kill her in a restaurant bombing is a spectacular misfire that leaves Kate alive and on the run. But soon, Kate isn’t just trying to evade The Watchmaker. American agents immediately consider her not just political and public liability, but a possible suspect, a notion that becomes cemented when an embassy official winds up dead, seemingly at her hands. While logic might dictate Kate should turn herself in to explain exactly what happened, and allow a proper investigation to unfold and find the real culprits, she doesn’t mostly because this is a movie.
And this is just the start of a plot that, in a script penned by Philip Shelby (the upcoming “Mechanic: Resurrection”), relies on a combination of The Watchmaker having a continual string of bad luck and ineptitude by American officials. At one point not long after his attempt on Kate’s life, The Watchmaker blows up an entire building in a housing estate, testing out a bomb he plans to use for his bigger master plan. It’s an incident that goes pretty much unacknowledged for the rest of the movie, though you might think someone might want to check out the curious coincidence of two massive explosions in a major metropolitan city on the same day.
For a movie that makes a very pointed display in a title card at the end of the film to pay tribute to the fact that law enforcement has reportedly stopped 53 terrorist plots in New York City alone after 9/11, given how they are portrayed here, it seems a miracle the authorities know how to tie their shoelaces. Forging a passport with ease after breaking into the American embassy, Kate manages to board an international flight to New York City, even though her face has been broadcast on news reports not just all over London, but probably the world. Even so, she manages to waltz by customs agents in United States, even with curiously fresh wounds on her face, and walk through a major airport without being recognized by anybody, before jumping into a cab. If dodging the authorities is this easy, we should all be immensely fearful for our safety.
All of these issues are compounded by McTeigue’s slack, flat, and seemingly uninterested direction, combined by a rather drab visual approach, complete with chintzy studio sets for the major climax that don’t hide the film’s modest $20 million budget. But the filmmaker should perhaps thank his actors for putting in more effort than this movie is worth. An action movie veteran, Jovovich gives an invested and believable performance no matter how ludicrous the plot becomes. And the same goes for Dylan McDermott as Sam, her stoic colleague, and The Only One Who Believes Her.
Grasping at some kind of message about the sacrifice and danger the men and women at the frontlines of the war on terror submit themselves to, “Survivor” manages to suggest their work isn’t much appreciated by the very government that employs them. And while the movie tries to end with Kate shrugging it off as all in day’s work, it can’t mask that the film cheapens the actual honest effort that goes into rooting out domestic plots. Unintentionally, the film’s title takes on a curiously sour meaning: Kate isn’t a survivor of her years on the job, but the politics and bureaucracy of the American government that’s ready to throw one of their own under the bus when trouble arises all in the name of good PR. [D-]