My feelings about The Bricklayer can be found in one of its fight sequences. There’s a woman with the Central Intelligence Agency who, despite her training and establishing earlier that she knows how to handle weapons, jumps on an assailant’s back and goes for a headlock, only to be whipped off and thrown to the floor. For some reason, almost every woman in every action film is made to do this, and it’s a terrible cliché. The Bricklayer is full of these old-as-Moses elements, making one think director Renny Harlin’s going for more of a greatest hits compilation than innovating. Which is a shame, because there’s a really good film in here somewhere; trouble is, only half of it made it to the final cut.
The threadworn plot is similarly passé, seeing former CIA agent Radek (Clifton Collins Jr.) betrayed by his employers, thus giving rise to a murderous rampage and a promise to expose the CIA’s misdeeds. The Agency sends his old friend Vail (Aaron Eckhart) to take him down, and just for good measure, they also send along office jockey Kate (Nina Dobrev) in a supervisory role. Of course, he treats her as a nuisance rather than an equal, and she has to prove herself in his eyes, like every new-cop-old-cop flick. To complete the John Woo-esque duality, Aaron has his titular day job – creating versus destroying – that provides him peace and distances himself from the wetwork he’s been doing for years.
Based on the first of a series of novels by Noah Boyd (a pseudonym for the late Paul Lindsey), The Bricklayer aims to be gritty and realistic while having a little fun. Surprisingly, fun is definitely on offer thanks to the cast’s efforts to elevate a tired script. Aaron Eckhart is fairly solid as our hero, but every now and again, he gives into spates of mumbling which make it hard for important plot points to be heard or understood. Contrary to his low vocal tones, his physical training for the role pays off with brutal grace, accomplishing his action set pieces with deftness and poise. Vail’s the type to get the job done and done well, but his one slip-up – allowing Radek to live instead of carrying out his Agency-sanctioned execution – has created an international mess. He is a blunt instrument, going more straightforward as opposed to Kate’s approach of sneaking under the radar.
As Vail’s somewhat comedic foil, Nina Dobrev jumps right in with fearless precision – except for, y’know, the aforementioned headlock attempt. Writers Hanna Weg and Matt Johnson head-scratchingly alternate between defining her as a capable agent and being extremely green. One minute, she’s picking up a gun with disciplined practice and doing some serious rally driving; the next, she’s cowering in fear as targets in her sights scurry around her. Although Dobrev does her level best and provides an endearing performance, her character is ultimately a convenience pump, appearing when Vail needs and disappearing almost as quickly.
A bigger misstep is that Harlin seems to have forgotten to match the film’s tone with its look, resulting in dichotomous absurdity. Is this supposed to be a serious film, or does its comic book-like color grading push it into more of a surreal space? Scenes meant to be dark are instead pushed into a low-contrast hodgepodge where everything is bright, even night scenes – instead of blackness, we get this gray middle ground that sheds depth for immediacy. Driving scenes are punctuated by dodgy CGI backgrounds, taking us even further out of the film. There are vast problems with this film’s outward appearance, and one wonders what Harlin’s up to with a film that looks this… off.
Having directed Die Hard 2 (my favorite of that franchise’s sequels) and Cliffhanger (another of my ’90s favorites), it’s odd to see Renny Harlin operate in this low-budget arena. He still has a penchant for making memorable, blowout action scenes, but then we transition to sequences where the money didn’t go, i.e., character development. While Eckhart, Dobrev, and Clifton Collins Jr. deliver physical mastery, their quieter scenes are given the short shrift, dumping exposition between gunshots, hand-to-hand combat, and honest-to-gosh thrilling car chases.
It feels like two entities are being shoved into a box – rollicking big action cinema and TV action drama – and each one is struggling for dominance. The truth is that neither has the upper hand; the action’s good enough, but the scenes between are merely filler instead of matching the action’s importance. Without that support tying everything together with purpose, The Bricklayer suffers, becoming a middling film that’s entertaining enough for a rainy Saturday afternoon watch, but you’ll have forgotten it by the time the storm blows over.