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‘The Bricklayer’ Review: Improbable but Enjoyable Spyjinks From Renny Harlin

By Dennis Harvey

January 3, 2024

Paul Lindsay was a former FBI agent and Vietnam veteran who sought to utilize his investigative and military expertise in creating a series of espionage novels, published under the pseudonym Noah Boyd. Unfortunately, that effort only got as far as a second volume before Lindsay died of leukemia in 2011. The first one has been in feature development since that year, initially as a vehicle for Gerard Butler. It’s Aaron Eckhart instead who assumes the mantle of Jack Reacher-like hero Steve Vail in “The Bricklayer,” a screen translation that appears to take considerable liberties with the source material, likely to take advantage of locations and resources afforded by its multinational funding.

The result, largely set in Greece, is an entertaining thriller that constitutes one of globe-trotting director Renny Harlin’s better recent joints, alongside Chinese productions “Bodies at Rest” and “Skiptrace.” Handled in his best slick, colorful, fast-paced fashion, it’s nonetheless less than a slam-dunk, as the convoluted plot and divertingly over-the-top action sequences add up to something more cluttered than clever, let alone credible.

Whether there will be a second Vail adventure (presumably drawing on the late author’s swan song “Agent X”) is anyone’s guess. Still, this is a lively bullet-riddled adventure that may not stick in the mind, but will leave no one bored for its 110 minutes. Vertical is releasing to U.S. theaters and on demand platforms Jan. 5.

An opening scene has a journalist (Veronica Ferres) who was an “outspoken critic of U.S. intelligence activities abroad” in a Greek hotel, receiving evidence that would scandalize the American government from a mysterious visitor. She’s surprised, to say the least, when he makes it clear he will also be killing her — the latest such high-profile whistleblower to be assassinated in such a way that suggests the CIA is rubbing out its detractors. The resulting public furor is exactly this perp’s intent, as he wants to extort a huge monetary sum from the U.S. government as payback for a very personal grievance.

The CIA soon figures out this mystery man is one Victor Radek (Clifton Collins Jr.), a former agency associate who’d been thought dead, and once acted as a covert operative mediating between the Greek and Russian mafias. But he’s very much alive, albeit elusive. To find him, CIA honcho O’Malley (Tim Blake Nelson) digs up Radek’s erstwhile close friend Vail (Eckhart), currently working the humble titular profession in Philly to rebound from a tumultuous career and embittering breakup with the CIA. Vail flatly refuses — until he himself is targeted on a construction site by no fewer than three assassins in the film’s first major action scene, forcing cooperation for the sake of self-preservation.

In an attempt to control this moody maverick, O’Malley pairs him with by-the-book agent Kate Bannon (Nina Dobrev). He’s so cool, he listens to Miles Davis; she’s so square, she claims “I don’t listen to music.” Needless to say, he is ignoring and overriding this “supervisor’s” directives even before they arrive in Thessaloniki. He contacts his own local vehicle/weaponry “outfitter” (Oliver Trevena), rattles a formerly minor-league criminal figure gone big time (Ori Pfeffer) for intel, and has a more complicated reunion with the fellow CIA agent (Ilfenesh Hadera as Tye) he’d been romantically involved with. Meanwhile, Victor keeps wreaking havoc that stirs angry anti-U.S. protests.

The sundry betrayals that emerge on nearly all sides, both past and present, aren’t all that easy to follow — and despite an occasional pacing lull, the progress is mostly too hectic for those twists to register as more than contrivances. Nor is there a lot of breathing space for the competent actors to create real characters. Gamely taking a lot of physical punishment, Eckhart does the whisper-croak vocal thing that’s been an irritating cliché for screen machismo since Dirty Harry. Dobrev gets stuck with the thankless retro part of the bossy female professional who proves helpless and inept at every turn, providing Vail with many an occasion to smirk.

Nelson, so often a significant plus, seems wasted in his disapproving-bureaucrat role. Collins also fails to find interest in a more dramatic figure, despite the bizarre decision to dress Radek in the affectedly dapper fashion of a young Joel Grey about to break into a Bob Fosse routine — an awfully conspicuous image for someone meant to be a master of invisibility. The multinational support cast is solid enough, if constricted by the writing.

But none of this matters too much so long as “The Bricklayer” is hurtling forward with no lack of chases, gunplay and explosions. As in his Hollywood days, Harlin remains a nimble and confident mainstream entertainer, risking silliness at times but seldom a dull moment. Matti Eerikainen’s widescreen cinematography in various well-chosen or well-dressed locations is always handsome, with all other tech and design contributions likewise expert.

There may be nothing memorable enough here to stir great enthusiasm for another Steve Vail outing, given basic genre components sufficiently generic to seem more MacGruber than 007. But while you’re watching, Harlin and company provide a fun ride.

The Estate of Paul Lindsay is repped by CAA and attorney Rob Szymanski.