Directed by Greg Marcks. Screenplay, Michael Nitsberg, Kevin Elders, based on a story by Nitsberg. Camera (color), Lorenzo Senatore; editor, James Herbert; music, Bobby Tahouri; production designer, Antonello Rubino; art direction, Art Ranghelov; costume designers, Alison Freer, Maria Mladenoza; sound (Dolby Digital), Tsvetan Kadiiski; assistant director, Jeff Shiffman. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, March 1, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.
With: Shane West, Ed Burns, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Pryce, Tamara Feldman, Sergey Gubanov, Martin Sheen.
Any similarities between the two pics may be purely coincidental, but "Echelon Conspiracy" plays an awful lot like a direct-to-vid knockoff of last year's "Eagle Eye." To be fair, "Echelon" actually was showcased (under the title "The Gift") at the 2008 Cannes market long before "Eagle Eye" hit megaplexes. But comparisons are as inevitable as they are unflattering, even though the After Dark Films release can be enjoyed on its own merits as a briskly efficient B-movie. Token theatrical run won't generate much interest, but viewers might be pleasantly surprised when this globe-trotting techno-thriller reboots as homevid and cable fare.
Twisty scenario by scripters Michael Nitsberg and Kevin Elders focuses on Max Peterson (Shane West), a computer security analyst who receives a state-of-the-art cell phone from an unknown benefactor while on assignment in Bangkok. Following the advice of a text message flashed on the high-tech device, Max enjoys a cut-rate day off in his luxury hotel--only to learn that, by changing his travel plans, he avoided certain death in a plane crash.
Grateful and greatly impressed, Max follows subsequent text-message tips: He flies to Prague, checks into another luxury hotel and wins big every time he gambles in the hotel casino. Unfortunately, his nonstop success arouses the suspicion of the casino security chief (Edward Burns, billed here as Ed Burns). Even more unfortunately, Max also attracts the attention of a hardboiled FBI agent (Ving Rhames) with ties to a hard-line National Security Administration chief (Martin Sheen).
"Echelon Conspiracy" has something to do with Max's ensnarement in a scheme to make an unauthorized expansion of NSA surveillance capabilities, and something else to do with a super-duper NSA computer that may be acting as a rogue agent with a hidden agenda. But, really, all the plots and counterplots exist solely to keep characters racing from one country to the next--Russia, Bulgaria and the U.S. also are on the itinerary--so they can shoot and be shot at, drive and/or crash cars at dizzying speeds and, periodically, cast anxious glances at computer screens while frantically clicking at keyboards.
If "Eagle Eye" borrowed freely from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "North by Northwest," "Echelon Conspiracy" ups the ante with additional pilfering from "WarGames"--note the climactic scene in which Max delivers a civics lesson to the rogue super-computer--and two or three Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventures. Helmer Greg Marcks does his level best to keep everything moving faster than the speed of thought, so auds will have little time or inclination to note gaping plot holes and inconsistencies of character.
To his credit, Marcks stages a shootout inside a Prague apartment that crackles with "Bourne"-again excitement, and even manages to add some fresh zip to a conventional high-speed auto chase through Moscow.
The actors--including Jonathan Pryce as a haughty zillionaire, Sergey Gubanov as a fortuitously tech-savvy cabbie and Tamara Feldman as the requisite beauty with ambiguous motives--are, for the most part, thoroughgoing pros who wisely refrain from trying to transcend the pulpy material.
The sole exception, Martin Sheen, tries a little too hard to infuse the pulp with importance by shouting during key scenes. This may be his way of overcompensating in a role thin enough to be entirely defined by the photo of George W. Bush hanging prominently in his office.
Bobby Tahouri composed the thunderous musical score, and it, too, is very loud. Other tech values are slick.