Published May 29, 2015Since jumping onto the scene in 2005 with the divisive and oft-referenced bit of polemical fantasy, V for Vendetta, James McTeigue hasn't done much of note. The Raven, his loose expressionistic play on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, was riddled with flaws and Ninja Assassin was little more than throwaway fluff. This is why his decision to helm the espionage thriller, Survivor, indirectly makes a lot of sense.
The premise of this rather lethargic actioner finds the highly regarded Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich) working as a Foreign Service Officer in London. She specializes in intelligence and security screenings, sifting through American visa applicants to determine who might pose a threat. Within minutes of the film's opening, we learn that she's stumbled onto something problematic: a Romanian doctor (Roger Rees) looking to attend a conference outside of his lexicon of medical specialty. Her boss (Dylan McDermott) supports her instinct, but a senior officer (Robert Forster) accuses Kate of obfuscating the flow of business. As viewers, we know that her senior officer is up to something and we know that Kate is about to wind up in heap of trouble.
From the outset, there is an abundance of problems with Survivor. The lack of accountability, stringent process and audit trail existing in Kate's investigations is highly illogical. While this sort of ho-hum, lackadaisical approach to security does support a premise wherein an insider is allowing an underground ring of criminals funnel into America, it's outright laughable for those with any sort of knowledge of the international intelligence spectrum. This overly liberal implausibility continues when the Watchmaker (Pierce Brosnan), a hired assassin, decides to blow up a restaurant full of people to take out Kate rather than just discreetly offing her in a far less problematic way.
Once the Watchmaker starts hunting Kate, McTeigue does demonstrate an aptitude for assembling competent action sequences. And if the purpose here were to create a compelling bit of escapist fun, the flaws in logic could easily be forgiven. The thing here is that far too much of what Survivor presents is earnest, which leaves us with a lot of talking and political speculation amidst the abundance of key players. There's a conspiracy plot to enact a terrorist event in New York that somehow involves the imprisonment and exploitation of high profile Western soldiers in the Middle East, an affluent businessman and a Romanian doctor. What Survivor is ultimately concerned with is their motivations.
This bit of politicizing about the many instigators of conflict and the many reasons for different people to get involved with large-scale terror plots suggests that this is a didactical film. But it's not as shrewdly conceived as something like 3 Days of the Condor; it's ridiculous and conventional. When considered and compared to McTeigue's lone success story, V for Vendetta; however, it makes far more sense.
Though there are title and end cards denoting the many attacks that security personnel have thwarted, the pointed decision to make the entire American government operation a corrupt and disjointed entity is a message in itself. Since we're then treated to lengthy speeches about the dangers of greed and the nature of blackmail and personal loss as rationale for violent response, it's obvious that McTeigue is again critiquing a modern political climate. It's just a shame that it's a tad unfocused and unconvincing, blurring the basic suggestion that catastrophic acts stem from an inherently flawed political system — chiefly American — without sufficient oversight.
And while this glib message does have its place in modern culture, McTeigue fails to sell it here. Survivor is a competent little espionage movie with some decent action, but it's not particularly memorable. It falls somewhere in between Taken and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without embracing any of what made either of those films successful in their own right. Instead, it tries to be too many things — it's too generalist — to work in any real capacity.