While this concept has always maintained some interest with moviegoers, we've recently seen an exhausting surge in thrillers where ex-government operatives come out of "hiding" to use their skills in dire situations, often to protect their family. Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) is yet another of those in Erased (aka The Expatriate), who has relocated himself and his estranged daughter, Amy (Liana Liberato), to Belgium following his service in the CIA. There, he had established a meager new life for the two, taking a consultant position for the Halgate Group as a stress-tester for digital and analog security systems, which demands long hours of him that detract from his daughter. Obviously, it comes as a shock when he arrives at his office one day to see that the entire floor has been cleaned out -- no computers, no security guardsman, not even a note -- and records of the division have vanished without a trace. If that weren't enough, Ben soon discovers that his co-workers are being hunted down by people associated with the division's erasure, and he's next if he doesn't figure out what's going on.
Thus begins Philipp Stolzl's by-the-numbers, semi-practical thriller, which neither lacks for consistent action nor can it avoid a lingering sense of deja vu. Nearly everything about Erased appears cobbled together from better, recent films, whether intentional or not: the intrigue and resourcefulness of Traitor, the thrill of the chase in The International, and eventually the violence and raw personal passion in Taken. Where it differs, really, is the writing style of newcomer Arash Amel, who works to make the events during the chase seem feasibly authentic. He and director Stolzl get that the convincing little details -- mistakes like dying cellphones and mundane actions like popping a towel dispenser when it's out -- heighten the immersion and humanity in the story, obviously a central component to their intentions based on the drawn-out development of the mucky relationship between Ben and his daughter. They intend for the audience's personal associations to overshadow the plot's derivative nature, and it does occasionally work.
There's a fine line between pragmatism and dullness though, and it's a balance Erased struggles to strike from the moment the chase begins. At first, the restraint and detail in Stolzl's craftsmanship enhances the film's absorbing setting: watching Ben hack security systems using "brute force" and chemicals reveals a compelling, quick-witted hero equipped to get out of tricky situations, followed up by his inability to identify with his frustrated teenage daughter in her new European home. Eventually, that bond between Amy and Ben becomes the drawn-out underside to the Halgate mystery, offering little beyond an obligatory chink in Ben's armor that his pursuers predictably exploit. That might've worked had the conspiracy itself yielded something beyond perfunctory twist and turns, yet the foundation that writer Amel gives this thriller -- including disappearing records, murders, and involvement with the CIA itself -- is just a bland and unenthusiastic emulation of things seen before, just on a smaller scale. And when the scale is smaller, it makes the characters' hiccups in intelligence even more apparent.
Aaron Eckhart almost makes one forget about the dime-a-dozen execution, though. With his chiseled jaw and the simmering intensity that hallmarks films like Rabbit Hole and The Dark Knight, he manages to shape Ben Logan's cardboard-cutout personality into a shrewd, passionate truth-seeker who's hiding a checkered past. There's not a lot Eckhart can do to nullify the banality in certain stereotypical scenes, such as the cliche shock when his past profession is revealed, but his composure and innate complexity as an actor manage to elevate them beyond the familiarity. Liana Liberato remains a constant presence by his side as Amy, and while this doesn't afford her any opportunities to reveal the nuance and power she exhibits in Trust, she handles the part well enough to support Eckhart's performance with an emotional liability and co-investigator. If there's an actor whose talents go wasted here, it's Quantum of Solace's Olga Kurylenko: her intense stares add an exotic angle to the small (but crucial) role as a CIA higher-up with ties to Ben, but her disarming, raw might is lost on this authority figure.
The frustrating thing about Erased is that, on the surface, it's a technically polished and well-shot thriller that amply capitalizes on Stolzl's diligence as a detail-oriented filmmaker. Exhibiting awareness of geography in brisk chase sequences through difficult surroundings and in pragmatic brawls, there's a degree of refinement here -- coupled with Kolja Brandt's incisive cinematography -- that many modern action directors could've used in their larger-budget tentpoles. Stolzl allows the camera's steady point of view to tell the story instead of blitzed editing, yielding very few scenes where you're unaware of Ben's objectives and actions. It's clear by the likes of North Face that the director holds the capacity to produce incredibly engaging action-suspense films with dramatic heft, but he needs more substantial and interesting material than what he's working with in Erased. This, however, ends up as just another convoluted conspiracy with misplaced, underutilized talent both in front and behind the camera.
Video and Audio:
Kolja Brandt's cinematography for Erased deftly embraces the slick, textured visual tempo of many modern espionage/crime thrillers, which Anchor Bay's 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC treatment captures with awareness of the style's highpoints and pitfalls. There are times where the black levels grow heavier than the disc will allow, crushing detail in rich contrast, and some exterior shots are hampered by coarse digital noise. Aside from that, this is an incredibly vivid, detailed, aware treatment that understands the photography's focus on steely blues and faint tans without drowning out the subtle palette details underneath. Close-ups remain razor-sharp and aware of the warmth of skin tones, the refraction of light on brushed metal and the contours of cars are impressively nimble, and the depth of dimension at-work here can oftentimes be very impressive.
The 5-channel Master Audio track doesn't flee from a few opportunities to flex sonic muscle, either. Erased is constantly in motion for the most part, so the key ingredient here is preserving a range of sound effects -- the bustle of running, the screeching of tires, the clanks of locks and doors, and the crackle of glass -- while they're surrounded by pulse-rising music. Anchor Bay's disc achieves this exceedingly well, allowing the thumping of music to test the lower-end bass while the sound of picking analog locks and footsteps remains audible and aware of their environment. Dialogue shifts between sharp and aware enough of the environment to stay audible, as do the slight sound effects in the film's aural design. The moments where it shines are, of course, when gunfire and explosions are required: while they're not terrible frequent, the scenes where the action gets explosive deliver plenty of balanced, forceful aggressiveness. Very stylish, handled quite well.
The only extra we're working with here is a quick press-kit caliber Behind the Scenes (4:56, HD) piece, featuring interview with director Philipp Stolzl and his crew interspersed with a few glimpses at making-of footage. I dig Aaron Eckhart's honesty when he mentions that he's always wanted to run around and "play CIA" in a movie.
Philipp Stolzl needed to make more of an effort to differentiate Erased from the rest of the cat-an-mouse conspiracy pictures that have come out over the past decade or so. Aaron Eckhart does what he can to add discerning humanity and intensity to this thriller about an ex-CIA operative who's investigating the disappearance of the security agency he's been working for, but there's only so much that the actors and steady-handed, occasionally aggressive action can do to offset such an endlessly rehashed plot design and character types. Anchor Bay's suitable Blu-ray deserves a Rental for Eckhart's charismatic performance and the film's ability to attentively inject smart, attentive little details into the action's framework.