flawed vision

The Baltimore Sun

The notion that Americans should measure the success of military strikes by the size of their collateral damage triggers the plot of Eagle Eye, a suspense film whose action ranges from the Middle East to Andrews Air Force Base and Aberdeen. No argument here, but if studios measured the success of potential blockbusters like Eagle Eye that way, few of them would ever reach the theaters.

Eagle Eye has half an idea in its head, but over two hours there's no time to complete or explore it, since the movie isn't just a chase but a combination steeplechase and destruction derby. As two innocents mysteriously enlisted to outmaneuver our entire national security system, Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan never elude obstacles when they can just crash into them. By the time a lethal high-tech glider starts trying to take out good guys in Washington, the damage isn't collateral: It's central.

Eagle Eye is one of those thrillers that hinges on carefully engineered surprises. They have to be surprises since, at least in the first hour, you're not given the information to anticipate them. It would be cruel to give any away, especially since, on its own terms, the film is moderately gripping. Let's just say the story line is two parts WarGames to three parts Enemy of the State.

LaBeouf plays Jerry Shaw, a woebegone underachiever and Stanford dropout (Stanford is American movies' school du jour: See The Lucky Ones). He starts receiving life-or-death commands on his cell phone on the day of his golden-boy twin brother's funeral. All he hears is a bland woman's voice, but this gal has the whole country wired. She uses every device on America's power and information grids to send Jerry messages and manipulates stoplights and power cranes to crush his pursuers.

Her orders maneuver him into the same getaway car as Rachel Holloman (Monaghan), a single mother who agrees to obey the female voice after Our Lady of the Cell Phones threatens her son. When Jerry discloses that his brother, Ethan, was in the Air Force, Holloman assumes the dead Shaw did something to trigger this ominous chain of events. Jerry doesn't take kindly to that idea, especially since he's still in mourning.

Yoking together two battling personalities who develop affection for each other has been a sturdy device ever since Alfred Hitchcock used it brilliantly in The 39 Steps. LaBeouf, who worked well with the director, D.J. Caruso, on their entertaining Rear Window takeoff, Disturbia, skillfully channels early John Cusack as a boy-man who doesn't know his own strength. He's well-matched with the warm, pert Monaghan, who can play a nice girl with grit and refreshing brusqueness. But the film barely tests their chemistry.

To keep your curiosity piqued (if not your intelligence engaged), the movie follows two other prongs of attack. There are aftershocks from the sequence that starts the film, a disastrous U.S. attempt to take out a fanatic Muslim leader (Michael Chiklis plays the defense secretary who tried to prevent it). And the efforts of FBI agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton) and Air Force investigator Zoe Perez (Rosario Dawson) to discover whether Shaw and Holloman are terrorists take them into an intelligence nexus where no everyday gumshoes have gone before.

Thornton appears poised to sprint to the finish line the way Tommy Lee Jones did in The Fugitive. His scowling default expression says, "Hey guys, cut the crap." Any time he gets a good line he makes it better with his surly wit, yet the script mostly feeds him bland, namby-pamby, old-school stuff (he wants to read reports on paper), as if protecting the PG-13 rating. When we dive into the bowels of a supercomputer, even this expensive set lacks originality and style; it looks like a honeycomb without the honey.

Caruso doesn't locate the openings for personality that he found in Disturbia. Without them, he becomes one more engineer of jolts. He tries to take us inside the action by shooting the pileups partly from his heroes' point of view, but he isn't ruthless or disciplined enough to hold to their unique perspective.

This movie's money shots include the shearing off of a police car's hard top. Classics in this genre, like WarGames, knew how to balance our desire to be startled with our yen to solve a mystery ourselves. Too often, watching Eagle Eye is like seeing someone else crack a jigsaw puzzle. And if it confirms that its young star can carry a sprawling spectacle, it doesn't help him flesh out his big-screen identity.

Like I said, he does a fine homage to Cusack, but when it comes to establishing his own distinctiveness, let me be the first to ask: Where's LaBeouf?

Eagle Eye

(DreamWorks/Paramount) Starring Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by D.J. Caruso. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and language and for violence. Time 118 minutes.

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