The movie isn't so much outright bad as it is simply flat and routine.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

As near as I can figure it, "Echelon Conspiracy" either played in my neighborhood for a weekend or not at all. The fact is, I had never heard of it until I looked up the actors at IMDb, where I discovered that Dark Castle/Paramount made the movie back in 2007, then shelved it for a couple of years before releasing it to a limited run in 2009. It made all of half a million dollars at the box office, so this DVD release is essentially its debut.

Judging by my experience with the film, Paramount knew what they were doing by not putting it out in wider theatrical circulation. It wouldn't have been worth their bother. You remember DreamWorks's 2008 conspiracy flick "Eagle Eye" with Shia La LaBeouf? You've got the same thing here, but on a smaller scale and with a less-prominent star. Worse, "Echelon" doesn't really compare favorably even with that fairly average action yarn. Indeed, it is puzzling why Paramount released "Echelon Conspiracy" to theaters at all, unless they realized they had their big-money earners "Star Trek" and "Transformers" coming out later in the year and figured they were financially comfortable enough to take a chance. Who knows.

Certainly, the film doesn't lack for star power. For an essentially straight-to-video product, it's got several big-name actors in it, like Ed Burns, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Pryce, and Martin Sheen, with a star, Shane West, who's been in the popular "ER" television series the past few years. The problem is that none of them shine like stars.

The opening sequence sets the mindless tone of the picture by showing us a woman instructed by cell phone to find a location on the tracks of a subway tunnel, where a train runs her over. Yeah, well, what would you expect to happen, trapped inside a working subway tunnel? Was she an idiot, or did the filmmakers think we were?

The main character is a young fellow, Max Peterson (Shane West), a computer engineer who installs security systems for big corporations. He becomes the innocent man caught up in a web of schemes not of his making. One day while working on a system in Bangkok, he receives a snazzy new cell phone in the mail from an anonymous sender. Then he starts getting untraceable messages on the phone, messages that help save his life and subsequently enable him to win huge fortunes at slot machines and blackjack tables. Max is a very happy man, his greed blinding him to the fact that you don't just get something for nothing.

Next, the phone directs him to go to Prague, Czech Republic, where "riches await." He goes, and there he meets Yuri Malinin (Sergey Gubanov), a Russian telecommunications specialist, computer hacker, and cab driver. Yuri will come in handy as the story proceeds. Poor Max, though. Although he's supposed to be a tech geek, he doesn't recognize that spy cameras are watching his every move everywhere he goes. Somebody or something is manipulating him, but he doesn't question any of it, blithely following his cell-phone directions. More to the point, he starts winning big at a hotel-casino, and he attracts the attention of the casino's security chief, John Reed (Ed Burns), who is a former FBI agent, as well as the casino's ultrarich owner, Antonin Mueller (Jonathan Pryce), both of whom begin getting suspicious.

Into the bargain, Max starts getting bumped around, like knocked out cold, only to awaken glowing and refreshened and staring into the eyes of a beautiful, sexy, young woman, Kamila Martin (Tamara Feldman). There's always a beautiful, sexy, young woman in these things. I think it's written into the official motion-picture thriller rule book. Needless to say, she turns out to be more than she appears.

One might believe all of this, gladly go along with it, if the movie had the tongue-in-cheek aura of a typical action adventure; but, instead, it tries to pass itself off as a serious espionage mystery and fails. The movie isn't so much outright bad as it is simply flat and routine.

So far, the viewer and Max are wondering what in the world is going on, why it's happening, and who's behind it. The intrigue increases with the appearance of Special Agent Grant (Ving Rhames) of the FBI and Raymond Burke (Martin Sheen), Director of the NSA. Why have the FBI and the National Security Agency suddenly become interested in Max? Why not? Everybody else is interested in him.

The second half of the film turns from implausible to just plain silly. The conspiracy is higher up than anybody figured, and before long everybody is muttering "Echelon, Echelon, Echelon." And, as I say, surveillance cams are following everyone.

By the time "Echelon Conspiracy" is over, you get the feeling you've seen it all before. The acting is bland, with Shane West's poor soul who's caught in the connivances more of a pawn than a player; Ed Burns and Martin Sheen just collecting a paycheck; Tamara Feldman merely looking pretty; Jonathan Pryce hardly having two words to say; and my never figuring out what Pryce's character had to do with anything in the plot once he got his money back. Which leaves as standouts only Ving Rhames for his habitually cranky FBI agent and Sergey Gubanov for his breezy cab driver. At least they're fun to watch.

Director Greg Marcks, directing his second big-screen picture (his first was something called "11:14") has Bangkok, Prague, and Moscow, among other places, as his backdrops, yet he might just as well have photographed the whole thing on a soundstage for all that he utilized these exotic locales.

While "Echelon Conspiracy" includes the usual punching, kicking, shooting, and chasing around, with a dash of contemporary paranoia and governmental machinations thrown in, it feels strangely inert, as though everything is going by in slow motion or in another dimension. Maybe it's déjà vu all over again.

Paramount transferred "Echelon Conspiracy" to DVD in its original theatrical ratio, 2.35:1, which is the best part of the deal. The definition looks decent most of the time, although there are traces of blurriness occasionally and scattered jagged lines. The filmmakers chose to do up the color scheme as we see in so many thrillers these days--with a lot of steel-blue and iron-gray shades; nevertheless, the shades often show up brightly enough. We see an acceptably clean screen, too, with a hint of natural film grain. My only minor concern was that darker areas sometimes fail to admit much detail. As I say, minor.

The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio displays strong dynamics, as evidenced by the opening-credits music, which practically pounds one into submission, and some effective surround noises, as befits a proper thriller. Even though there is a decently wide frequency range, there's isn't an abundance of deep bass, and the overall sonic impression sounds more than a tad aggressive.

So, what did you expect from a DVD that essentially comes to us straight to video? A director's commentary? A two-hour making-of documentary? A couple of dozen deleted scenes? A bloopers reel? A hardbound book? A set of personal stationary embossed with the word "Echelon" at the top? A deck of genuine "Conspiracy" playing cards? Nope. What you get are fifteen scene selections; a few trailers at start-up and in the main menu; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
You can't say you don't get plenty of movies in "Echelon Conspiracy." You not only get the film itself, you get a little "Bourne," a touch of "I, Robot," some "Live Free or Die Hard," and a whole lot of "Eagle Eye." And for this privilege, you only sacrifice originality and common sense.


Film Value