Sometimes, I look at a movie and wonder, "How can there be so many great actors in it, and yet it's not a bigger deal?" The Echelon Conspiracy is an example of why that happens. Yes, it's got Shane West, Ed Burns, Ving Rhames and Martin Sheen in it, but this is a film I didn't entirely get until Shane explained a crucial part of it to me.
We've seen conspiracy thrillers before. We've seen movies about technology going awry before. We've even seen Martin Sheen being kind of a bastard before (hello, Spawn). The Echelon Conspiracy is what happens if you add those three things together, then stick a likeable and underrated actor (in this case, Shane West) in the middle of the resulting melee. While I think it's a better film than various scathing reviews I read before I bought it say it is, I can also see why it had a limited theatrical run.
Here's the rundown: computer whiz Max Peterson (West) receives a mysterious cell phone from an unknown benefactor that starts delivering messages. At first, they're purely for his benefit (like stopping him from getting on his scheduled flight, which takes a nosedive), but then they take a more sinister turn, drawing him into a situation that spans several countries and goes completely over his head. In order to stay alive, however, he has to get smart in a hurry and enlist the help of an ex-FBI agent (Burns), the ex-agent's former partner (Rhames), and a required love interest (Tamara Feldman). It all sounds promising, moreso when you start looking at the cast list, but it's not that easy.
When it comes to the plot, this is a movie that puts itself in a difficult position. As with many films about anything complicated (like conspiracies and high-tech stuff), there's a certain amount of moviegoers who won't have the attention span to keep up. Those who will be the best at keeping up, the ones who love labyrinthine plots and technical know-how, are all the more likely to start nitpicking. For example, especially in the post-9/11 world (this came out in 2009) of mysterious package scares, I wouldn't be opening a package from someone I didn't know. I certainly wouldn't be doing anything a cell phone told me to do. (I've seen Phone Booth.) Then again, to be fair, if Max had followed my advice, he would have died in a plane crash, so take that as you will.
There are less plot holes in this movie than I originally thought there were; there's one particular running thread that I thought was a huge oversight until Shane explained it for me. And yes, that is my groaning at yet another obligatory love interest in a movie. There will be a few times where you'll have to suspend disbelief to enjoy this one. I think of it the same way as I did the remake of Walking Tall; I was into the movie more for fun than for complete plausibility, and I had fun despite the flaws.
Having said that, there are strengths to be had within the shaky plot, and they start at the top. I don't know how many times I've seen the "computer genius" portrayed as unattractive and socially retarded, but thank God for Shane West, who wrecks that stereotype. He has both the vulnerability that sells Max's relative naivete and the natural attitude to keep naivete from being confused with weakness. This is what endears me to Shane West as an actor; he takes a role that you'd expect to be one thing and takes it in a completely other direction, and he has the self-confidence to sell it. I know that he's a smart actor who isn't going to settle for the obvious choice. The fact that he's so likeable also helps smooth over some of Max's more questionable decisions; I might not agree with all the things he does, but I do know that I like him and thus, I'd like him to stay alive. (In terms of "obscure films with Shane West in them," I still prefer What We Do Is Secret.)
His supporting cast gives the standard performances you'd expect when you hear their names; Ed Burns is the sarcastic former FBI agent and Ving Rhames the dogged current FBI agent, and between them they have an interesting banter. Rhames in particular is so good at delivering that one deadpan line and walking away. They're also not out of place when it comes time to start shooting. It's not reinventing the wheel, but average from these two is still better than above-average from a lot of actors. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen plays the bureaucrat who's wondering what is going on around him as he consults various staffers and engineers from his impressive complex. His character here is an odd cross between his role as President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing and his villainous turn in Spawn; he's great at making decisions and relaying expository facts, but he's the guy you want to punch in the face. Again, he's basically playing a rote part, but this is still Martin Sheen we're talking about. I can see why these actors ended up in this movie; who wouldn't want to be sarcastic, shoot bad guys, and save the day?
Echelon Conspiracy also strikes a nice balance between enough technology for those of us who love it, and enough action to keep the attention of those not quite so fascinated by the stuff. This is a movie you won't need a degree in Computer Science to understand, but it's not a brainless series of explosions, either. Not to mention that the largely international settings allow for some different backdrops than you're used to from a movie of this nature. Hey, and for once, the Russians aren't Cold War villains!
Now that I've seen it a second time (and had some of it explained to me), I don't think Echelon Conspiracy is as ridiculous as I used to believe. I'm not going to say it was great, but it's one that I can put on my shelf without regret, that I can look at and say, "That was fun if nothing else." If you want to see a quartet of good actors give decent performances and can overlook sometimes suspect writing, it's worth checking out. I completely understand why this movie went almost straight to video, but I'm keeping it in my collection (and being really suspicious of my text messages for awhile).