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The Cold Light of Day

September 12, 2012
The Cold Light of Day

Sometimes, the old ways are best. There’s a place for innovation and showmanship, but The Cold Light of Day reminds us that a well-tested recipe in the hands of a skilled chef — here, Franco-Tunisian director Mabrouk El Mechri — can produce great results. This is real meat-and-potatoes action filmmaking, with a bold, black peppercorn kick.

Will Shaw (Henry Cavill) is not having a great day. He arrives in Spain’s Costa del Sol for an obligatory visit with his parents, Martin (Bruce Willis) — who works as a cultural attaché at the American embassy in Madrid — and Laurie (Caroline Goodall). Will’s company is in dire financial straits; he doesn’t get along well with his strict, emotionally distant father; and the airplane left his luggage in San Francisco.

On the second day the family takes their sailboat out to anchor off a local beach. After tensions rise, Will swims ashore for a break. When he returns, the boat is missing. He finds it one cove over, deserted. It seems that Martin is not a cultural attaché after all, but an operative for some branch of the CIA; in a recent mission he captured a MacGuffin-brand briefcase, and a group led by a mysterious, swarthy man (Roschdy Zem) has kidnapped the family to force him to return it. After speaking with his team leader Jean Carrack (Sigourney Weaver), someone kills Martin, leaving Will with his gun, his cell phone, and his problem.

What follows is a taut, bone-crunching thriller as Will — with the aid of the young Lucia (Verónica Echegui), who was one of his father’s contacts — attempts to rescue his family by whatever means necessary.

The script is far from original, and the film as a whole functions mostly as another stepping-stone for Cavill — following Immortals — before his big debut as the new Superman in Zack Snyder’s hotly-anticipated Man of Steel next June. Willis confers gritty action-hero bona fides on Cavill, while Weaver plays out pretty much the same no-nonsense female agent character she’s played over and over recently in Paul, Abduction, and more.

Of course El Mechri owes a debt to the Bourne series, as does the director of any euro-spy thriller with more crashes than explosions. But as a director he owes more to Liman’s The Bourne Identity than to either of the Greengrass sequels. The action is less chaotic than most; it still cuts around a fair bit, but El Mechri’s camera is far more steady, even in a crash.

But beyond the action, El Mechri is absolutely an artist with his compositions, and a genius in making full use of foregrounds and backgrounds. This film could serve as a case study in how to give the audience one subject to focus on at one depth while still using the out-of-focus area at another depth to communicate. A car drives off towards the top of the frame while another one lays in blurry wait at the bottom, reminding us where both hunter and hunted are. Or we focus on one character close up while another one speaks and moves behind him.

Is The Cold Light of Day a great movie? no. But it’s a solidly-built action film with plenty of practical crunch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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