It’s common nowadays to praise “late style,” those works by great auteurs that find aged artists working familiar ground and exploring their obsessions with whatever limited means are at their disposal. Frequently ignored, or outright dismissed, by both critics and audiences, final works by Ford, Hawks, Boetticher, Preminger, and others have gradually been reclaimed from maudit status and situated as essential parts of their creators’ oeuvres. It can be a nebulous concept, hard to define, frequently occupying a “know it when you see it” type of territory. But what of the journeymen directors? The figures that found commercial success but never quite made the leap to full-fledged auteur? From a contemporary standpoint, filmmakers like Phillip Noyce and Martin Campbell are still at it, even if no one in particular is paying much attention. In that vein, Renny Harlin was one of the most successful mainstream filmmakers of the ’90s, churning out slick, propulsive action-adventure movies with a keen eye for large-scale stunts and flashy set pieces. But the last couple of decades have not been kind, and as Harlin has found himself involved in lower-budgeted environs, his skill set seems to have disappeared in direct relation to the amount of money at his disposal. The Bricklayer is just the latest in a series of movies you’ve never heard of (and will likely never see), international co-productions designed to be pre-sold at festival markets and eventually distributed to streamers and airlines. For all practical purposes, these movies barely even exist. Which is not to say that The Bricklayer is awful. It’s not good, but there are certainly worse movies out there. No, it’s simply mediocre, featuring B- and C-listers going through the motions of a screenplay that needed a few more drafts and a shooting schedule that should’ve allowed for a few more takes. It’s a simulacrum of a real movie — everyone is going through the motions, but things just feel slightly off.
An earlier iteration of The Bricklayer was set to star Gerard Butler, a casting choice that would’ve instantly elevated this sort of staid material. Likewise, someone like Scott Adkins could’ve tilted the project more toward the straightforward action vehicle it seems to want to be. Instead, we get an aged Aaron Eckhart, a talented enough actor who nonetheless has made more bad movies than good. Here he plays Vail, a retired CIA assassin who, no shit, is an actual bricklayer in his free time. But when rouge agent Radek (Clifton Collins Jr, channeling the affectless mannerisms of Rami Malek) begins killing journalists and politicians in an effort to destabilize the world order, Vail’s old boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson, in full paycheck-cashing mode) brings him in from the cold to do one last job. Along for the ride is an agent of the bean counter variety (Nina Dobrev) who doesn’t approve of Vail’s rakish charms and willful disregard of proper operating procedure. The duo begin tracking Radek in various sequences of bland espionage, occasionally interrupted by some hand-to-hand fighting and one pretty decently staged shootout. Eckhart has the physicality to sell the fisticuffs, and Harlin does put his stunt team to good use, but for all the glass-smashing and head-cracking on display, there’s no real rhythm to the action scenes, no flow. The hi-def digital cinematography looks too clean, giving everything the glossy, flat patina of a daytime soap opera, while the increasingly convoluted plot piles cliché on top of cliché on top of cliché. There are plenty of exciting DTV action movies out there, with energetic directors making the most of small budgets and small crews of dedicated craftspeople. Harlin once had the skills to marshal an army of technicians on a huge scale, but not much else. Take away the budget, and it seems there’s nothing there anymore.
DIRECTOR: Renny Harlin; CAST: Aaron Eckhart, Nina Dobrev, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson; DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical; IN THEATERS/STREAMING: January 5; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 50 min.