During a more than 60-year acting career, Michael Caine has had a lot of highs and lows. One of his most embarrassing moments was a supporting role in the reviled sequel Jaws: The Revenge – a film that came out the same year he picked up an Academy Award for Hannah and Her Sisters. In one of the actor’s most enduring interview quotes, Caine said of the sequel that he had never seen the film. “By all accounts, it is terrible,” he said. “However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
Caine’s droll attempt at transparency routinely came back into this reviewer’s mind during Survivor, a film that is cluttered with action movie clichés and may be most fondly remembered by its principal cast for helping them renovate their homes. Despite the presence of director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) and thriller author Philip Shelby providing his first feature script, the film is relentlessly dumb, filled with familiar plotting and laughable story contrivances. The thriller also feels suspiciously dated for a film dealing directly with the post-9/11 era.
In the film, Milla Jovovich stars as Katherine Abbott, an American Foreign Service officer tasked to look into a possible security breach in London. It turns out that several nationals applying for Visas to the U.S. may be pawns from a chemical conglomerate that is entwined with staging a terror attack abroad. Katherine is determined to find these perpetrators, as she lost some of her close friends at the World Trade Center many years before. (Why someone working for the Foreign Services even needs an underlying motive to keep her country secure is mostly a screenwriting indulgence on Shelby’s part.)
However, on her first day on the job, Katherine is witness to a large explosion, set up by a villain known as the Watchmaker (Pierce Brosnan). Shortly after evading this foe in a chase through the London alleyways, Katherine is framed for the murder of one of her department heads. This only adds another seemingly insurmountable obstacle to her counter-terrorist work, as she has to avoid being seen on surveillance cameras in a city as well equipped as London. Regardless, the screenwriter often relies on an ill-equipped police force to falter behind as Katherine runs to the next plot point.
While she doesn’t even don a disguise until grabbing a pair of reading glasses late in the film – a prop that hardly alters her appearance yet manages to get her through heightened airport security – Katherine also dodges a couple of confrontations with the Watchman. These close calls routinely bring eye rolls; despite his focus and precise aim any other time he has to shoot at an object or person, the villain fails to take down Katherine. Sometimes, before he can fire, random heavy objects happen to fall on him. The delays that grant Katherine an escape are so silly that one almost expects him to slip on a banana peel at the film’s climax. (For those wondering why the Watchman can so swiftly evade police capture? As Sam explains, “He had reconstructive surgery. No one knows what the hell he looks like!”)
As the Watchman, Brosnan doesn’t emote too much; nevertheless, given the character’s snarly growl and pun-filled quips that come straight from the action movie villain handbook, he doesn’t need to. The wooden performances extend to actors who will probably draw on Caine’s aforementioned excuse. Dylan McDermott is a blank slate as Katherine’s superior, Sam. Angela Bassett is a minor presence as a U.S. ambassador who tries to quell speculation that Katherine was one of her trusted proteges, and James D’Arcy is a local authority that mainly exists to arrive at the scene of a crime a few minutes after Katherine was there and explains the circumstances to Sam (and audience members who may have dozed off while watching the previous scene).
McTeigue, who has showed a knack building propulsive rising action in his past action thrillers, keeps the pace quick but offers little of a directorial stamp. He doesn’t have much of an opportunity to show off, since Shelby’s screenplay is awash with tired conventions and contrivances. The incident that spurs the story forward, when Katherine kills a senior official, doesn’t work: that senior official is hunting her with a gun and approaches her, armed, at Hyde Park. Even though he fires at her in a crowded public spot – one that is full of security cameras – the only thing the authorities manage to realize in the aftermath of the scuffle is that he is dead and she has his weapon. If the authorities investigating this matter had only gone back in the security footage a minute earlier, a lot could have been cleared up.
Survivor closes with disingenuous pre-credits text, explaining that law enforcement and other agencies have foiled 53 attacks on New York City since 9/11. The solemn statement clashes against the crazy, cliché-ridden action flick that precedes it. Meanwhile, the text is even more egregious considering how the only reason the protagonist from the film can continue on her journey to stop terrorists is due to the ineptitude of these same authorities. If the police and other officials depicted in the film had been slightly better at their jobs, the circumstances would have been different. It’s a wildly miscalculated way to end the film, trying to add gravitas to a story that lost any resemblance to authentic geopolitical intrigue in its first 15 minutes.
Oh well, even if the actors emerge with a small stain on their resumes, at least they will have enough in their bank accounts to get those house renovations underway.
Relentlessly dumb yet royally entertaining, Survivor sometimes approaches the realm of being “so bad it’s good.”