Pray for the C.I.A., because if Mabrouk El Mechri’s dunderheaded action thriller The Cold Light of Day is to be believed, America’s most elite undercover agents are incapable of outrunning or outwitting an improbably handsome American tourist with a three-day beard and a secondhand firearm. Sigourney Weaver, here playing the cold-eyed T-1000 to our plucky junior hero’s John Connor, can’t even plug the young guy when she’s got a clear line of sight and the advantage of surprise, which she somehow gains about 16 times over the course of this plug-and-play narrative. In simple terms, The Cold Light of Day relates more or less the same story as Robert Rodriguez’s family-friendly Spy Kids, though in this case the kid is in his late 20s and the spy stuff is much less believable or robust. The bulk of the action is as fill-in-the-blanks uninspired as it comes: When Will Shaw (Henry Cavill, continuing to pretend that he’s a star) travels to Spain to spend a week with his family, he discovers that his father is a C.I.A. agent whose surreptitious—and possibly treasonous—dealings with Israeli terrorists has put his and his family’s lives in danger. What transpires from there (predictable double-crossings, shocking second- and third-act reveals, more galavanting through the streets of Madrid than a Hemingway novel) unfolds without verve, wit, or charm. Many rote action thrillers feel like they’re merely going through the motions; The Cold Light of Day barely manages to even do that.
The film’s visual style feels predominantly televisual (where form nearly always follows function), but when it begins to resemble its blockbuster brethren, the most obvious aesthetic reference point is the spare, economical Bourne series, especially Doug Liman’s unfussy original. In general, though, the house style of the franchise (clean, pared-down visuals made kinetic in the editing room) lends itself supremely well to this sort of mundane thriller, where the action only ever alternates between chases on foot and in cars. Liman and his successor, Paul Greengrass, reasoned that deliberately chaotic shooting and editing could transform an otherwise ordinary fistfight or rooftop sprint into something disorienting and, when done well, pretty exciting, and the Bourne films handle that sort of cut-and-paste mania better than just about any film not directed by Tony Scott. El Mechri, whose cult-favorite JVCD showed promise, tries and fails to emulate an aesthetic that, executed poorly, makes this already mundane action appear borderline incomprehensible. Which leaves very little to laud: A bit of visual flare might have salvaged The Condemned scribe Scott Wiper’s dismal, unimaginative script (with dialogue so hammy and characters so wafer-thin that it more closely resembles a student film than something one-time A-list actors like Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver would sign up for), but as it stands this is nothing more than a badly shot, badly written thriller in the mold of better efforts.