Survivor draws attention to the heroic sacrifices made by American Foreign Service officers in combating international terrorism while also indicting their attendant agencies in an utterly goofy shadow-government conspiracy. This is reasonable if intended as political fecklessness in the service of a riff, but it’s the kind of filmmaking that gets touted as “workmanlike” when it’s really straight-laced to the point of tepidness. With the film, James McTeigue squanders not just a formidable cast (headed by Milla Jovovich, outrunning a super-assassin played by Pierce Brosnan), but the potential for any kind of reflexivity in either form or subject matter.
Jovovich plays Kate Abbott, a Foreign Service officer regularly touted as the best of the best by her supervisor, Sam (Dylan McDermott). Abbott is a fresh transferee to the United States’s London embassy, where her unwillingness to stamp the passport of a man named Balan (Roger Rees), a Romanian doctor angling to visit the U.S. for a conference, lands her in hot water with her immediate boss, Talbot (Robert Forster) and the U.S. Ambassador (Angela Bassett). Kate’s quest to thwart potential terrorist attacks is motivated by 9/11, which is displayed in a spectacularly ill-advised flashback, triggered by the sight of a Windows on the World postcard. In short, the film maximizes War on Terror-era exposition with a minimal investiture of time or narrative risk. A taciturn assassin known as the Watchmaker (Brosnan) is tapped to blow up the entire embassy’s staff (save Talbot) over lunch, but Kate escapes, at which point the expected game of cat and mouse ensues.
McTeigue’s use of crosscutting between hunter and hunted has the curious effect of sucking dramatic plausibility from Survivor’s nominally pivotal chase sequences, with the Watchmaker and Abbott held in curiously exact parallel proportion at all times. Truly aberrant twists—like Talbot’s attempt to murder Kate in full view of London’s Hyde Park, or a hideous bombing that somehow fails to attract much attention in its surrounding neighborhood—are given an almost hilariously outsized solemnity. In the film’s most forgivable moments, Brosnan plays the Watchmaker with a neck-stiffening nastiness that recalls Lee Marvin or Richard Widmark, but his character remains not only a cipher, but yet another superhuman MacGuffin, shorn of even the most meager shred of motivation within the film’s universe. That said, the police, the bad guys, and the clandestine services are drawn as equally incompetent across the film’s runtime, reinforcing Survivor’s vision of widespread government dysfunction with a different flavor.