Echelon Conspiracy was directed by Greg Marcks (11:14), written by Michael Nitsberg and Kevin Alyn Elders (Iron Eagle, Raven Hawk), and stars Shane West (Red Sands, Awakening the Zodiac), Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, One Missed Call), Ving Rhames (Dawn of the Dead, Soldiers of Fortune), Amara Zaragoza (Hatchet, Alyce Kills), Sergey Gubanov (Soulless, The Payback), and Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Amazing Spider-Man). It follows a man who finds a mysterious cellphone that brings him a fortune at the expense of being embroiled in a worldwide conspiracy and tracked by government agents across the world.
The Plot: Liberal pilfering of more well-known thrillers like Eagle Eye, WarGames, and Enemy of the State provides most of the plot in Marcks’s debut while he adds a handful of more engaging and less traveled sequences of global espionage movies. There’s no mistaking the formula on display here, but the writers initially acknowledge that fact with a Terminator-esque antagonist that certainly dampens the movie when handled improperly, notably with a finale surrounding a download progress bar, but the journey there is a diverting ride nonetheless.
Max (West) is staying in a Thailand hotel where he gets a package containing a phone, one that gives him quite a bit of useful advice. It starts simple with an update on pricing at his hotel, but quickly graduates to stock advice that gains Max 313% profit and takes him to Prague where he meets Yuri (Gubanov) who provides him with some tips and accessories, and Kamila (Zaragoza); who’s after Max’s phone. In a casino run by John (Burns), Max gets the odds from his phone and wins big, causing suspicion.
As John catches on, so does FBI director Burke (Sheen), who sends agent Grant (Rhames) to track Max. The phone ends up ordering the recipient to do something after it gets the owner money, once Max knows this, he convinces John and Grant to let him track down whoever – or whatever is sending the messages before something big happens. It’s implausible as anything and contains plenty of stock scenes but Echelon Conspiracy has some fun with its idea, which translates to the screen, for a while anyway.
The Characters: Max makes for an entertaining lead. He’s an electrical engineer who’s a bit of a goober, making awkward conversations with those around him while simultaneously having a good head on his shoulders. Clearly, he is willing to indulge in some less than legal methods of getting money, which starts out innocently enough and brings him down a rabbit hole he had no idea about or intentions of getting involved in. He’s far from unique but West handles what he has well and makes what could’ve been a contemptible lead one that’s modestly fun to follow.
It’s a good thing that Max works like he does because all of Echelon Conspiracy’s other characters are surface-level archetypes with nothing to them aside from their portrayals from seasoned actors. Both John and Grant are hard-edged, dismissive rule-followers who eventually start to think for themselves after the reasons to believe Max’s pleas of ignorance only after reasons to do so start piling up. Their switch isn’t organic and there isn’t enough development for either of them for that not to matter. Burke is similar in that he only thinks linearly after failing to get Echelon (a security act, a la Patriot Act) an upgrade. It makes sense but it’s entirely predictable at best, as most of the characters here.
The Thrills: There’s still some room to be made for surveillance-based antagonists in movies, plenty of it in fact, but aside from the loose connection to the real-life Echelon Program, Echelon Conspiracy only scrapes by in providing its thrills. Ultimate antagonist aside, it’s easy to tell where the movie is going which damages the end result; but when Marcks dares to go even slightly off the beaten track the movie begins to realize its potential as a semi-serious thriller instead of a strait-laced one. A large portion of Echelon Conspiracy takes place within that casino, and Max’s initial winning streak is one of the few highlights of the movie.
As John starts to pick up on what’s happening, Max keeps winning and he has more to lose. It’s simple, very simple, but that high and eventual fall raises the Echelon Conspiracy’s suspense level. When Max goes back under the supervision of John, Grant, and Burke to see what the phone tells him to do, only to find things not going the way they expected is another simple but effective high.
It’s when Echelon Conspiracy goes global that it bows to cliche and resorts to generically shot chase scenes and halfhearted attempts to tap into the paranoia-inducing surveillance capabilities of the phone with legitimacy. It could’ve been an extended Casino Royale gambling sequence with some security cameras but Marcks elects to reach too far.
The Technics: A jumbled tone is perhaps the largest issue with Echelon Conspiracy, second only to its derivativeness. The first act is a competent and fun ride that doesn’t insist on making a grand statement even when it uses its omnipotent tech; that threat of being caught by a human for using said technology is much more legitimately presented than the Sky-not computer. After that first act, the movie makes an abrupt tonal shift into espionage territory, with Burke setting bait for the computer that ends up in a huge accident and sending a barrage of assassins sent to kill the one man who the computer/phone wants alive.
There’s nothing wrong with playing a concept straight, but Echelon Conspiracy doesn’t start or end there. Other attributes like the cinematography and music are passably generic but never subpar or terrible; although it’d be difficult to make a chase through Moscow look horrific. Budget deficits do impact the lighting though, with plenty of shots resembling a TV show rather than a theatrical release. All things considered, Echelon Conspiracy is a decently made movie from a technical standpoint.
Had Echelon Conspiracy stuck with its slightly less-than-serious tone, it would’ve been a solid thriller; but Marcks’s expanding scope and the script’s goofy villain start to get played the wrong way, leaving a solid first act in lieu of familiar and less refined thriller tropes that divert only serviceably.
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