When two people walk away from a high-speed car crash with nary a scratch on them, you know you're watching an action movie. When an innocent, ordinary citizen is suddenly thrust into the middle of a national security crisis, you know you're watching a paranoid conspiracy thriller. When both these conditions have been met, nothing makes much sense, and things go "boom!" every 8-10 minutes, you know you're watching Eagle Eye.
Re-teaming star Shia LaBeouf and director D.J. Caruso from last year's immensely popular, faux-Hitchcockian Disturbia, Eagle Eye, which had a special screening at Fantastic Fest with Caruso in attendance, might welcome comparisons to The Man Who Knew Too Much or The Wrong Man but is actually closer in spirit to The Net, Irwin Winkler's 1995 attempt to wrestle with identity theft and other perils of the information age. Like that movie, Eagle Eye exploits the all too common fear of technology, but shoves the premise way past common sense, positing a world in which an anonymous voice on a cell phone holds the power of life and death over complete strangers.
With this role, LaBeouf ascends definitively into the Hollywood firmament of stars. While this may be good news for his legion of young fans and his accountant, it's bad news for the moral possibilities of the character he plays. Looking like Seth Rogen's younger brother with a scruffy beard and threadbare clothes, Jerry Shaw is a prodigal son living on the cheap in Chicago. He's devastated when he learns that his twin brother has been killed in an accident, but reconciliation with his stern father (William Sadler) is impossible.
Father and son are quick to argue about the obvious; the siblings were like night and day, one an overachieving genius who joined the military, the other a college drop-out drifting through life. Disappointed though he may be, Jerry's father still slips him a check for $1,000. Jerry isn't too proud to accept the money; when he checks his balance at an ATM, his balance has skyrocketed to $751,000. He's only too happy to withdraw thousands -- the first hint of implausibility, since ATMs in the real world limit withdrawals to a few hundred dollars -- though he's dismayed to find his tiny apartment has been stuffed with boxes of military-grade weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making material.
As his utter confusion mounts, he receives a mysterious cell phone call from a women telling him to flee his apartment immediately. The FBI smashes through windows and doors, Jerry is caught up in a bizarre game of cat and mouse controlled by that anonymous, implacably imperial voice, and the plot is off and racing. Soon enough Jerry joins forces with single mother Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), whose child is being threatened, and is hotly pursued by both the FBI, led by Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton), and Military Intelligence, in the person of Agent Perez (Rosario Dawson).
The chase gallops through multiple cities and rural landscapes, destroying property and killing innocent bystanders willy-nilly, leaving a monstrous trail of PG-13 friendly destruction (no explicit bloodshed, no lasting consequences from laying waste to miles of city blocks). From the standpoint of production design, photography, stunt work, and action sequences, Eagle Eye is everything you'd expect from a major Hollywood production on which Steven Spielberg served as executive producer and nothing more: slick, shallow, and instantly forgettable. Directing like Michael Bay's younger brother, Caruso imposes a furious pace upon the proceedings, which discourages any close analysis of the story, though many small moments are so ridiculously over the top unbelievable that it's hard to keep from giggling.
Without giving away plot points that have not already been revealed in the theatrical trailers, the film borrows concepts and ideas from at least a dozen other films, yet fails to mix those elements in any particularly original way. One problem may be LaBeouf's newly-minted star status: any hint that Jerry may not be 100% "right" in everything he does and says has been scrubbed away. LaBeouf displayed goofy, childish charm in The Transformers, which connected the film, however tenuously, to the toys that inspired it. Similarly, in Disturbia he effectively portrayed a teenager juggling anti-authoritarian leanings with awkward sexual curiousity and misadventures in self-righteousness. The imperfections are gone in Eagle Eye. Even his character's blemishes are proven to be of the sort that are morally indefensible.
"Popcorn logic" could be used to defend some of the movie's plot holes; "it's only a movie, after all, what do you expect?" Of course, that kind of reasoning is what has led to a general lowering of standards for mainstream cinematic entertainment, especially since the mid-1980s. But why don't we expect more from action movies? Why employ four credited screenwriters (and who knows how many other uncredited scribes) if not to add complexity to characters or create a stronger narrative spine, from which the action sequences could then spin off into their own orbits?
Watching Eagle Eye in the midst of Fantastic Fest, in which dozens of genre films from around the world demonstrate time and again that a fresh, striking different approach can be incredibly successful, entertaining, and thoroughly please audiences, ultimately brings home the vacuity of the experience.
Perhaps Eagle Eye would not inspire such umbrage were it not for the film's blithe use of terrorism and patriotism as plot points, to a point that becomes risible and, frankly, noxious in its penultimate scene. If you're going to make a popcorn movie, by all means embrace the corn and stop trying to pretend that the story has any relevance beyond box office receipts.
Eagle Eye opens wide on Friday, September 26.