Eagle Eye

2008-09-26 (General release)

Where’s Jamie Foxx when you need him? Way back in his pre-Ray days, Foxx starred in a crazy-killer-spy thriller called Bait, a smalltime crook used by unscrupulous feds to lure a villain out of hiding. Like Will Smith before him (in Enemy of the State), Foxx’s Alvin is an ingenious dodger of men with big guns and gadgets. He is admirable where the agents and the villain are dirty, funny and smart where they are bumbling. He is, in a word, an ideal inadvertent hero, entertainingly aware of just how bizarre his situation becomes

Jerry (Shia LaBeouf) is less ideal — and much less entertaining. More self-serious than his own situation warrants, Jerry first shows up in Eagle Eye as a resentful clerk at Copy Cabana, fleecing his coworkers in a backroom card-game before he heads back to the register, where he not-so-patiently explains the copy machine procedure to yet another dim customer. Scant minutes later, he’s sucked into the elaborate and unwieldy plot that pits him against a whole lot of men with guns and gadgets, as well as one great big gadget.

That gadget is a behemoth surveillance system that goes by the name of Aria, among the characters introduced in the film’s very first scene. As Secretary of Defense Geoff Callister (Michael Chiklis) worries in the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs advocate taking out a target that may or may not be the Afghani terrorist they’ve been hunting. When Aria calculates the target is probably incorrectly identified, Callister balks, only to be overridden by the president, who goes with the JCS, a decision portrayed here as recklessly aggressive and causing retaliatory suicide bombings against Americans in Afghanistan (with obvious allusions to the Bush Administration). While the argument, missile strike, and bad outcome look all too familiar, the real point of this scene is to lay out the sensational tech — and Aria soon puts its awesome capacity for monitoring everything and everyone to a whole other kind of use.

Jerry’s involvement in Aria’s machinations begins with the death of his twin brother Ethan, an Air Force hotshot. Disappointed but not surprised to find his father (William Sadler) bereft over the loss of his “good son,” Jerry slinks away, sulky and resentful, just in time to be “activated” (Aria’s term of art) into a loony-tunes plot full of explosions, car chases, and shoot-outs. Jerry’s first stop (following his arrest for having an apartment full of weaponry, sent to him by the computer he hasn’t met yet) is an interrogation room, where FBI agent Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton) accuses him of being a terrorist, always a bad thing, but now, worse than ever: “Who do you think’s winning,” snarls Morgan, “Your Miranda rights or my right to keep you in this room as long as I want?” Now understanding that he’s living on that side of the Patriot Act, Jerry starts believing Aria’s instructions (delivered by cell phones and LED tickers in public spaces) are his only way out.

This new and never credible faith leads him to jump out a window and into a waiting Porsche Cayenne, driven by Rachel (Michelle Monaghan), a paralegal and single mom who manifests even less potential as a super-agent than self-described slacker (and Stanford drop-out) Jerry. Her enlistment in the plot appears to be merely a function of her being a single mom. Whenever Aria flashes an image of her eight-year-old son — via surveillance cameras, as he’s en route by train to Washington DC for a music performance — she agrees to do whatever dire deed the machine demands. You know, because moms in movies are mindless when it comes to protecting their kids.

Such lack of logic is standard for such films, especially for one that’s stretching existing technology into extravagant paranoid fantasy. It’s equally predictable that the film takes brief time-outs for Jerry and Rachel to get to know one another (i.e., argue and fret, share their feelings, blame one another for causing this mess). This in addition to occasional encounters with Aria, less to explain their situation than to intimidate them into “obeying.” When Jerry stamps his foot and says, “I’m not serving in the goddamn national defense!”, Aria starts showing him old photos, files, and even home movies, downloaded from various consumer sources, in order to subdue him. “We know about you,” says Aria, whose icy female voice recalls Mother in Alien. “You lacked the motivation and talent that allowed Ethan to excel.” Erk. The old sibling rivalry gambit: Aria wins this round.

Even as it reduces Jerry to mumbling submission (briefly) the machine’s cheap shot also encourages Rachel to be nicer, as she sees in Jerry a boy who needs to be mothered. And if they’re not Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint (and Eagle Eye references North by Northwest more than once), this team at least has conversations, which is more than can be said for their federal counterparts, Morgan and Agent Zoe Perez (Rosario Dawson). Both see themselves as by-the-book hardliners (Aria notes of Perez, “Your field reports are very thorough, if poorly formatted”) but they’re set on a course of too-regular sparring and reconciling. Their early disputes over who’s subordinate to whom are soon replaced by agreements over the urgency of their current mission — even though they’re having a difficult time understanding what that mission is.

In this, Perez and Morgan are not alone. Though they are outsmarted repeatedly by Aria and the amateurs Jerry and Rachel, the agents at least understand how security systems and protocols work. This is more than can be said for their movie, which shreds the rules whenever convenient.

RATING 3 / 10