The Bricklayer is a fascinating misfire

The Bricklayer is a fascinating misfire

I’m not sure who decided that Aaron Eckhart should be an action hero, but whoever it was got their money’s worth with The Bricklayer, at least in terms of commitment to the bit. In terms of “fitting the part in any way whatsoever,” well, no value was attained. Here Eckhart plays Vail, an ex-FBI agent who now spends his days working as a bricklayer. He does his work all alone on a rooftop set surrounded by a fuzzy green-screened skyline, with not a single fellow construction worker in sight. He stacks his bricks, he uses his trowel to cement them, and he listens to jazz music because he’s a deep guy who has seen things you would never believe — done things you could never imagine.

One day his titular bricklaying is interrupted by O’Malley (Tim Blake Nelson), Vail’s former boss at the FBI. It seems that somebody is assassinating journalists and pinning it on the agency. Could it be at the hands of Vail’s former associate Radek (Clifton Collins Jr.)? Why, yes it could!

The mission is simple: Vail, who offers next to no resistance to being called back into the field after being canned for insubordination, must team up with young upstart agent Kate (Nina Dobrev) from the “Cute as a button” division of the FBI, to hunt down and stop Radek from doing whatever it is he’s doing.

The film is based on the first novel of the Steve Vail series, which, based on its Goodreads profile, is essentially a Jack Reacher/Tom Clancy mashup. Another piece of information gleaned from Goodreads is that the novel is nearly 1500 pages long, which tells me that the film is an extremely watered down version of the story. Whatever international intrigue that may be held in its pages has been replaced by a pretty standard good guys vs bad guys run-and-gun actioner.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film is directed by Renny Harlin, who knows more than a thing or two about putting together an action sequence. Heavy cutting and digital tomfoolery aside, the fisticuffs between Vail and his opponents are staged well and often quite effective. Even though Eckhart does not make a believable bruiser, the illusion is maintained in terms of functionality. In fact, much of the action has a vibe that calls back to the era from whence Harlin made his name. The fight choreography is a decent mix of John Wick and Commando, although markedly less dynamic. This is not helped by the film’s relatively cheap look – a reliance on green screen vistas and CG flames are not flattered by the film’s digital sheen.

It makes perfect sense that this was initially pitched as a Gerard Butler vehicle back in 2011. It’s exactly the type of film that he tends to elevate with his presence. Gerry Butts still has a producer credit, but I do wonder how different this film would’ve been with him at the center (The Bricklayer wishes it could be Plane).

The resulting film suffers an identity crisis. Stuck between Jack Ryan and Jack Reacher, with neither the action nor intrigue feeling fully developed, it becomes a mashup of expected tropes, all delivered at a half-measure. For example: when Vail and Kate are teamed up with one another, the whole “I work alone” character trait is invoked for a single exchange. Then it becomes a “will they, won’t they” sort of thing, which soon gives way to a pretty dated “damsel in distress” relationship (no love lost to Dobrev, who has an easy charm that gets her through the film relatively unscathed).

Another example: Vail is an avowed jazz-enthusiast who always has an earbud in so he can listen to Coltrane while he works. This is obviously so that a big action sequence can be set to a killer jazzy needle drop…but it never comes. Even his role as a bricklayer doesn’t play into the action like it should. Early in the film he does manage to cut a guy up with a trowel that he inexplicably carries on his person at all times (“I never go anywhere without my tools”) but after that, he no longer takes his tools anywhere, and his vocation is only mentioned much later in the film when he waxes philosophical about how bricks are the only thing he trusts.

Oh yeah, he does choke a dude out with a tape-measure toward the beginning, but after that it’s just guns and fists. 

Yet despite the remarkably undercooked nature of the whole affair, I found myself transfixed by the film simply as a fascination. Aaron Eckhart, one of the most powerful actors to ever do it, doing a low-budget tough guy movie by the director of Die Hard 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and looking absolutely unhinged throughout? Yeah, that’s worth some of my time (maybe not two whole hours though), even if just as a goof.

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Noah Boyd, Matt Johnson, Marc Moss, Pete Travis, Hanna Weg

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Nina Dobrev, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson

Rated R, 110 minutes

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