Perhaps the first thing that needs to be asked before discussing this action thriller is “what the hell happened to Aaron Eckhart?” Having started out in a clutch of interesting films either written or directed by Neil LaBute, he went on to play alongside Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, after which stardom seemed assured. But since then he’s turned up in film after film that delivered less than it promised – The Core, Thank You for Smoking, The Black Dahlia, The Wicker Man. Before pausing at The Dark Knight, the over-rated second instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Then continuing on down – Rabbit Hole, Battle Los Angeles, The Rum Diary.
Which brings us to The Expatriate (known also as Erased, a better title), a sub-Bourne Euro-caper in which Eckhart plays Ben Logan, a CIA guy hung out to dry by the agency, or a mega-corporation, or an unholy alliance of the two.
It’s a pity this film is so generic because Eckhart is so good in it. Though it isn’t without its plot pluses. Having established early on that Logan is a whizz at security – using native cunning and extreme hi-tech to disable whatever is thrown at him – the film delivers its first curve ball. Turning up for work one day, Logan discovers that everything and everyone has simply disappeared, the office is cleaned out, his Blackberry no longer works, his bank account shows no signs of activity. In the digital age, the film tells us, a life lived entirely online can simply be zeroed out.
The next wrinkle is Logan’s daughter, Amy (Liana Liberato), a whingeing teenager whose default verdict on dad is the middle finger. As the two of them go on the run when bad guys start trying to kill them, she discovers that instead of dad being a seller of grommets or somesuch, he is in fact proficient in several languages, can kill people with his bare hands, hotwire a car in seconds and so on. She’s appalled, impressed, curious and in enjoyable scenes between the two, she hungrily drinks in his hastily delivered masterclasses in spycraft. Narky teenagers, we’re learning, are probably bored teenagers.
And then, having done some good work The Expatriate seems happy to become just another of those Liam Neeson films set in a European city, where chase sequences are intercut with picture-postcard atmos shots of cafés on twinkly cobbled streets and lots of innocent people die (but not our innocent people).
The script is at least partly to blame, and feels like it’s been photocopied from any number of other films – “I can fix this”, “He’s the best”, “I need you to help me right now”.
Perhaps the biggest victim of this auto-writing is the character played by Olga Kurylenko, a wonk back at Langley who once had a bit of a thing with Logan but who was forced to cut him loose because “he’d grown a conscience”. Struggling hard to a) inject the sort of gravitas into this minor role that Joan Cusack did in the Bourne films and b) play down her beauty, Kurylenko is not entirely successful at either.
What should be the spine of this film – is the former lover going to shop her old flame or save him? – the whole Kurylenko/Eckhart thing is simply under-developed. So when Olga finally turns up in Antwerp on her mission unpalatable we don’t care.
In act three things wander off even more vaguely, as Logan and daughter are forced to take shelter with the Muslim family of the guy Amy has kinda been making eyes at. Are we about to learn something about Muslims? Is this a statement about immigration into Europe? Is the CIA guy going to win new respect for a culture his outfit is wary of? Or is everyone just going to die?
Let’s just call it inelegant. Any chase movie that has two “escape down the Metro system” sequences isn’t really fully in charge of what it’s doing. Or it is fully in charge and just doesn’t care.
Which brings me back to Eckhart – why is he in something this generic? Or is he angling to take over from the big fella when Liam Neeson hangs up his hat as the more mature action hero?
© Steve Morrissey 2013