An opening caption outlines the history of the Special Boat Service — the naval equivalent of the SAS and, by inference, composed entirely of blokes several degrees harder than any given US Navy SEAL or fully-paid-up member of the Tufty Club. Duncan Falconer, an ex-SBS op, followed up his memoir First Into Action: Dramatic Personal Account Of Life Inside The SBS with a series of novels about commando John Stratton (The Hostage, The Hijack etc), and co-wrote the original screenplay for this big-screen version.
If Stratton is to stick around, he needs to up his game.
Obviously, Stratton would like to kick off a competent he-man franchise along Bond, Bourne or Mission: Impossible lines, but it hasn’t had an easy ride to the big screen. It was developed as a vehicle for chiselled Henry Cavill, who was replaced just prior to shooting by Dominic Cooper. As it happens, Cooper is a better fit for the role than Cavill, and not just by virtue of actually being British — he only has the role of ‘young Howard Stark’ in Marvel movie and TV projects shadowing him, rather than the harder-to-escape cloak-shadow of Superman (not to mention Napoleon Solo). However, on this showing, Stratton is such a generic good guy Cooper doesn’t get much to play with – he has decent enough opportunities to thump people and dodge bullets, but doesn’t get to show off any suaveness or cunning.
In a prologue, Stratton’s best mate Marty (Tyler Hoechlin, lately Superman on Supergirl) is killed during a raid on an Iranian bioweapons facility — an occurrence that chalks off two clichés — that the soldier destined to die is the man in the platoon who hasn’t yet seen his just-born baby, and the newly minted one that the casualty’s mobile phone rings inside the body-bag, spurring the agonised hero to vow revenge. In a melee in the bland factory, a sample of deadly virus is nabbed by a rogue Russki with the Carry On Spying name Grigori Barovksy (Thomas Kretschmann). The film marks time with humanising elements — Stratton hangs out on a barge with his crusty father figure Ross (Derek Jacobi) — before picking up again as our hero heads off to Rome to put the frighteners on some bomb-makers and collect enough plot bricks to build a finale back in London. The wind-up involves a literal hop on a bus for a chase/action scene as the city is threatened by killer drones.
Every spy hero needs a nemesis and a supporting cast. Blofeld wannabe Barovksy has complicated ‘history’ with sleek, sexy M-type SBS boss Sumner (Connie Nielsen), who issues Stratton with Felix Leiter/Moneypenny/Q hopefuls in American sidekick Hank (Austin Stowell), smart gel Aggie (Gemma Chan, the standout player) and twitchy techie Cummings (Tom Felton). A sub-plot simmers about a potential traitor on the team, and murky politics hamper the hero’s quest to get even with the murderous villain and save the country.
It’s a relentlessly square, old-fashioned yarn, even beside Spooks: The Greater Good or the London-set season of 24, let alone recent Bond or Bourne entries. Dialogue is all-cliché, a decent cast get not much to go on (if Wonder Woman put Nielsen back on the map, this does her few favours), and even the action scenes have a rushed, unfinished feel. Gun-for-hire director Simon West — a contributor to the Tomb Raider, Mechanic and Expendable franchises — still hasn’t matched the high-water mark of his lunatic debut Con Air.