Credit: Vertical
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Genre Views

Chief of Station — Jesse V. Johnson

May 7, 2024

It’s been an extremely productive year for director Jesse V. Johnson. Our premier DTV auteur has churned out three films in the last 13 or so months, including the western-tinged One Ranger and the underrated epic-on-a-budget Boudica: Queen of War. Rounding out the trifecta is his new espionage thriller Chief of Station, an old-school spy caper that still finds room for some well-staged hand-to-hand combat and a few fiery stunts. As critic and DTV aficionado Brandon Steussing has noted, there’s a different baseline when evaluating this sort of low-budget effort. Part of the charm is witnessing Johnson doing a lot with a little, maximizing resources and still having some fun. It’s not perfect, of course, but Chief of Station is still largely superior to any number of recent mainstream action releases. There’s a clarity of purpose to this sort of unpretentious fare, a unity of form and content that is refreshingly unreconstructed.

Aaron Eckhart plays Ben Malloy, a CIA big wig who is introduced in the midst of an operation on foreign soil. Things go as planned, and Ben and wife Farrah (Laëtitia Eido), also a CIA spy, go out for a night on the town to celebrate. But an explosion rocks the restaurant as they are leaving, injuring Ben and killing Farrah. Fast forward six months, and Ben is summoned to a meeting with the Justice Department. Some high-ranking officials think that Farrah was a double agent and are planning to pin the terrorist attack on her. Furious, Ben decides to go off reservation to clear his wife’s good name, while at the same time trying to patch things up with his estranged son Nick (Chris Petrovski), who blames Ben’s clandestine lifestyle for his mother’s death. Soon, Ben is running around Europe (the film was shot mostly in Hungary), looking up old contacts to help him figure out who is framing Farrah. There’s John (Alex Pettyfer), his British counterpart who wants to help but is hamstrung by INTERPOL bureaucracy. And there’s also FSB Chief of Station Eygeny (Nick Moran), Ben’s Soviet counterpart. The two have a long history together, neither friend nor foe but somehow bonded together via old-school Cold War politics and post-Berlin Wall political gamesmanship.

Johnson is likely best known for his frequent collaborations with the great Scott Adkins; their films together tend to be of the non-stop action variety. Chief of Station is a different beast, leaning heavily on plot and an intricate (too intricate, really) web of double crosses and deceptions. It’s almost half an hour before we get an actual fight sequence, and a full hour before Olga Kurylenko appears as one of Farrah’s former assets. But this all does give Johnson a chance to flex some filmmaking muscles of a different sort. The dialogue sequences and ample exposition are handled with slick efficiency, and (rare for DTV) the actors are up for the task of selling these characters. But shootouts and explosions do eventually commence, including a very welcome appearance by Daniel Bernhardt as a fierce mercenary out to dispatch Ben by any means necessary. It’s a bit of a disappointment when the plot fizzles out; there aren’t many viewers who won’t see who the big bad is from a mile away, and there’s a fine line between complex and confusing. But the simple genre pleasures that viewers have come to expect from a Johnson joint are on full display. It’s always a treat to see Kurylenko in action star mode (really, we can’t recommend Boudica enough) and Eckhart, coming off Renny Harlin’s The Bricklayer from earlier this year, has the goods to sell the physicality of his fight scenes. Chief of Station isn’t going to win any awards, but it gets the job done with efficiency and precision. That’s the Jesse V. Johnson guarantee.

DIRECTOR: Jesse V. Johnson;  CAST: Aaron Eckhart, Alex Pettyfer, Olga Kurylenko, Nick Moran;  DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical;  IN THEATERS: May 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.