Echelon Conspiracy‘s opening scene establishes the young, jet-setting protagonist Max Peterson (Shane West) as a computer engineer more than capable of fixing any computer malfunction with MacGyver-esque panache. As Peterson is about to pack up from a business trip in China, a mysterious cellphone arrives from an anonymous sender and instructs him to do various tasks via text message. Some of the suggestive texts produce good outcomes (missing a flight that crashes soon after takeoff; hitting a mega jackpot of three million Euros on a slot machine) as well as bad (several near death threats if he turns the phone off again).
Peterson is greeted by a whole list of colorful characters trying to obtain the origins of the phone and its ominous messages: From the hard-boiled F.B.I. agent, Grant (Ving Rhames), who soon apprehends Peterson, to the head of securities at the casino, John Reed (Edward Burns), who also takes an interest in the computer techie and his conspicuous winnings. The U.S. government is soon revealed as the culprit behind the bountiful misgivings, heralded by the often-commanding (but surprisingly expendable here) Martin Sheen as a high-level government nut-job who predictably runs amuck with despotic leanings.
As far as leading men go, West doesn’t make for a particularly compelling or swoon-worthy one, and the rest of the cast seems like they’re just waiting for their checks to clear. Simply a case of we’ve-seen-this-before-and-better (at least Sandra Bullock’s The Net had camp value), Conspiracy flimsily masquerades as a ticking bomb but is ultimately sans heart-pounding jolts. One thing director Greg Marcks never quite figures out is that all thrillers require thrills, and positioning intangible NSA software as an unstoppable killing machine no longer feels novel. Lacking the tension-filled banter of Hal, this supposed deathly program could more likely cause my computer to freeze, or elicit terror in the hearts and minds of computer-illiterate grandparents everywhere.