Take this edge-of-your-seat thriller from little known British director Pete Travis, for example. In the hands of lesser talents, the story of an assassination attempt on United States President Ashton (William Hurt) during an appearance at a landmark summit in Spain on the global war on terror would likely be B-grade fare featuring Steven Seagal and Rutger Hauer rather than Lost star Matthew Fox and Dennis Quaid. But the gimmick provided by first-time screenwriter Barry L. Levy, whose script examines the same event from eight different perspectives, affords Travis an opportunity to prove himself the UK’s best action director since Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum).
Travis, whose only previous feature film was the award-winning Irish indie, Omagh, was clearly influenced by the legendary Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. After each character’s perspective has played out, he literally rewinds the action back to the beginning and starts over, wisely unveiling one piece of the complex puzzle at a time and leaving you guessing whodunit until the brisk film’s final climax. What to one character may appear to be a passionate couple kissing ultimately proves to be something else entirely, proving the old adage that you can’t judge books by their covers.
It’s a fantastic gimmick, but the problem is that, with the focus entirely on the action and intrigue, we never really come to care about the characters at the heart of the conflict. Dennis Quaid is given the most prominent back-story as Secret Service Agent Thomas Barnes, returning to his job for the first time in a year since taking a bullet to save Ashton’s life. Rattled and clearly paranoid, he leans on his protégé Kent Taylor (Fox, showing the same remarkable intensity for which his TV character is known) for support. But aside from that, we don’t know enough about the other key players to care much about them. Who is Taylor, and why does he look up to Barnes? What sort of President is Ashton, and why are so many protestors picketing his appearance at the summit? Why does American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) stick around and get involved after shots ring out and bombs go off, when common sense would dictate that he get the hell out of there? Even when the masterminds behind the terrorist attack are revealed, you’ll question their motivations.
That said, there are plenty of things to like about the film. The cast makes excellent use of what little they’re given to work with, and Venezuelan newcomer Edgar Ramirez is a major star on the rise. The action set pieces are enthralling, particularly a high-speed chase through the streets of Spain. And Travis proves a revelation, using largely handheld cameras to make us feel like we’re part of the action. Still, you get the feeling that his best work is yet to come.