Aaron Eckhart (who’s already had one action hit this year with Olympus Has Fallen) is apparently out to claim Liam Neeson’s mantle: Just like in the Taken films and Unknown, he’s playing an ex-black-ops guy who has to protect/save/find his family in this Europudding action thriller. The title, Erased, even sounds like a Liam Neeson film. (It was originally called The Expatriate, which was presumably nixed because Americans won’t know what the hell an expatriate is.) Five years from now, it’ll be an inevitable source of confusion: “Wait, what was that Liam Neeson movie? Abducted? Disappeared? Vanished? Erased?” “No, dummy, Erased starred that other guy…what’s his name?”
I kid, I kid. Actually, for its first half, Erased is pretty solid — absorbing, suspenseful, even poignant. Eckhart plays Ben Logan, an American living in Belgium working for a security company, devising ways to defeat its own security systems. Early on, he gets to display his genius in a moment of gloriously bogus movie science, when he shows how a quickly scanning slideshow of close-ups of eyes can defeat a retinal scanner. It’s nonsense, but it looks right. Meanwhile, Ben is also trying to connect with his teenage daughter (Liana Liberato) who has come to live with him. She’s rebellious and mouthy, but thankfully not (as teenagers tend to be in these sorts of things) shallow: When he inevitably misses one of her special events owing to work, it’s her photo project documenting the city’s immigrants. The real trouble starts, though, when Ben swings by his office to find that his workplace has disappeared. The building is empty. What’s worse, his bank account is cleared, and nobody has any record of him ever having worked at the company. Everything’s … vanished. No, sorry … erased.
The setup sounds generic, but director Philipp Stolzl (whose 2008 Nazi mountaineering adventure, The North Face, is very much worth your time) and his cast bring real pathos to the scenes of our hero slowly discovering his predicament. As Dad is shattered, the jaded daughter watches. It’s touching to see Eckhart’s slow-burn humiliation play off Liberato’s understated disappointment; they seem like a real father and daughter. Slowly, Ben begins to realize there’s more at work here than just a computer glitch or an elaborate Mamet-ian long con. As his co-workers start to show up dead, he starts displaying the Neesonian special set of skills that the CIA taught him so well. Soon enough, faces are being bashed in and cars are careening off highways, with mysterious men of unknown origin lurking in all sorts of corners. Somehow, his former colleagues at the CIA, led by Olga Kurylenko, are also involved.
Very often, with movies like this, we’re twiddling our thumbs through the generic exposition and character development, waiting for the action to flare up and raise our pulses. But in Erased, it’s the other way around: The setup is involving, with Eckhart walking a fine line between being the badass who used to kill people and the schlub who just got conned by a bunch of Eurocrooks. Unfortunately, it’s the action that’s generic and it gradually takes over the story. This stuff worked in Taken because the film was so violent and depraved – fueled, of course, by Liam Neeson’s character’s single-mindedness in rescuing his daughter from a bunch of deranged white slavers. Here, the bad guys and their MacGuffin are a lot less sickening, so there’s less at stake in the by-the-numbers car chases and shoot-outs and explosions and whatnot. One can sort of see where Stolzl is going with it — he’s trying to give the action a slightly more realistic kick than usual — but as the plot gets more cartoonish, his efforts effectively dampen what’s happening onscreen. The result: Characters we genuinely care about are lost in a movie that almost dissipates before our very eyes.