There are smart movies and there are dumb movies. Both categories have good and bad versions. Like Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.” A good smart movie knows it is smart, and never once acts like it. A good dumb movie knows it is dumb, and winks at the viewer from the screen every so often, saying, “It’s okay, your brain switched on for a moment, let’s turn it back off and cut to the chase.”
D.J. Caruso’s new thriller Eagle Eye is, unfortunately, a dumb movie that thinks it is smart. It thinks it is so smart that it tries to be years ahead of its audience. Unlike a good action movie that engrosses the viewer and encourages a gentle relaxing of the brain — a suspension of disbelief — Eagle Eye bashes at the brain stem with a rusty shovel.
Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia, Transformers) plays Jerry Shaw, the unmotivated twin brother of a recently deceased Air Force first lieutenant. He is given a few bare threads of a back story: some incoherent babble about dropping out of Stanford to tour the South China Sea only to end up hustling poker in the back room of a copy shop.
Jerry heads back to his apartment the day of his brother’s funeral to find it stocked wall-to-wall with ammonium nitrate, fake passports, and supposedly high-tech military equipment. How did it get there? Perhaps the landlady slipped it all through the mail slot. (Perhaps Jerry should have paid his rent.) He receives an untraceable, anonymous phone call informing him that the FBI will arrive on the premises in 30 seconds, and suggests he flee the scene. From the FBI. On foot. Right.
Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Made of Honor) plays Rachel Holloman, a single mom in a seemingly unrelated plot line, sending her young son on a middle school field trip to Washington D.C. That night, when she’s out doing Jagerbombs with her friends, she receives a similar phone call. The voice plays a recording of her son on the train from across the street, and then tells her if she doesn’t drive away in a black Porsche to await further instructions, her son will die.
While in FBI custody, Jerry hears some tired “we make our own rules” hogwash and grandstanding from Automat government types played by great actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson and Michael Chiklis (TV’s The Shield). Jerry then gets a preposterous bailout by the mysterious voice and starts running for his life, only to find the voice controlling every electronic gadget in his path.
He meets up with Rachel and the two … well, the rest of the plot should be obvious, even in its overdone attempt at complexity. Take Enemy of the State, The Matrix and Live Free or Die Hard and cut-and-paste the plotlines. The basics of the movie prey on the same fear of technology, the looming potential of cyber-terrorism and the faith that one man can make the difference. Yes, man. They threw a strong female lead into the movie and then proceeded to yank the carpet right out from under her.
Why don’t either of the leads ever attempt to explain the premise properly? Don’t say “Uhhh … that tactical sniper rifle isn’t mine.” Say, “There’s some lady on the phone telling me what to do!” At least she can’t get to you in the loony bin. Or can she? By the time the viewer finds out who she is, the feeling of, “been there, done that to death,” numbs any sense of surprise. (You can also throw 2001: A Space Odyssey into the list of stolen plot sources.)
Is the movie enjoyable? Sure. The movies it ripped off were either smart or knew they were dumb, and those plot lines float the film. Although the film attempted a few competent action sequences — a crane going through a window, a car chase involving a spectacular pileup which the idiotic cinematography turned into a confused muffle and a powerful final sequence involving an unmanned aircraft chasing an SUV into a tunnel — most failed spectacularly. The sense of futility against an overwhelming opponent who uses human dependence of technology against us? Damn. But, again, the directing gets in the way.
D.J. Caruso is no stranger to this game. His last movie starring LaBeouf, Disturbia, was an inferior remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. The only reason the movie succeeded was because of LaBeouf’s Tom Hanks-esque onscreen charisma and the recycled plot of a superior movie. Sound like a familiar formula? Every action scene in Eagle Eye has the unfocused, shaky camera of the fight scenes in Transformers, a Michael Bay flick starring … Shia LaBeouf? Huh. What a surprise.