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Operator (2015) Review

Operator was directed by the Olson brothers (Body of Sin, Unknown Caller), written by the Olson brothers and Dwain Worrell (Iron Fist, The Abandon), and stars Luke Goss (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Night Crew), Mischa Barton (Spree, The Toybox), Michael Pare (Invincible, Bridge of the Doomed), Riley Bundick (A.N.N.E., Little Monsters), and Ving Rhames (Echelon Conspiracy, Soldiers of Fortune). It’s about a police officer whose dispatcher guides him to a hostage taker’s soon-to-be crime scenes, having to outwit his assailant and save the young girl he’s taken.

The Plot: Plenty of B-movies reside within the already colored lines drawn by their bigger-budget brethren. As for Operator, it aspires only to set up its races against time, paying little mind to holes or constructing something remotely resembling reality.

Although it has recently become one of America’s hotspots for crime, Atlanta’s police dispatchers and 911 receivers are stuck in place. After the Olson’s and Worrell clear up the formalities between operator Pamela (Barton) and her daughter Cassie (Bundick), the former is going to feel the sting in a cinematically perfunctory way. Picking up a call from Richard (Rhames) results in the woman’s entanglement in his scheme, which involves reporting crimes right before they happen. Fortunately for the character, the writers have taken a contrived road to keep Operator simple, with Pamela calling on estranged husband and local cop Jeremy (Goss) and his partner Howard (Pare) to investigate.

Needless to say, the trio has a problem, but instead of building a deeper connection between the “accidents” and the world around them, there’s another helping of cliché to avoid depth. To keep the protagonists compliant, Richard’s men (this isn’t a spoiler, they’re shown in the first minute) have kidnapped Cassie, and it’s now up to the leads to feign submission while trying to save the girl and stop the caller. Nothing is wrong with being straightforward narratively – that is, until the thinness gives ample time to question the lack of logic. Richard’s desire to mess with the cops is beyond silly, as none of his schemes are remotely necessary.

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Minor twists are present, but all but the least experienced in this realm will see them coming. On its face, Operator’s plot is functional, but the overreach to throw in setpieces requires logic that it doesn’t have.

The Characters: Broken families are one of the stalwarts of the action and thriller genres, so it requires a bit of effort to elevate an instance above the thousands of others. The script does what’s necessary to sell the struggle, but not the humanity behind it.

Jeremy is a troubled cop (is there any other kind in these movies?) and a troubled man. Alcohol has allegedly caused him some problems, which stemmed from a focus on his vocation rather than Cassie. One night, the family’s house caught fire and Jeremy wasn’t home to react, which cost him his confidence and his previously higher position on the force. Operator doesn’t pry inside his mind enough to clarify why he thinks he’s at fault, but Goss does an acceptable job at selling regret despite the limited writing. Still, Jeremy is just another movie cop.

Pamela, aside from her newfound financial instability since separating from Jeremy, doesn’t have much to her aside from her parental convictions. Again, the script’s insistence on leaving development out of the proceedings does damage to audience attachment. Urgency wouldn’t be a substitute for actual writing, but it would’ve helped; Barton wasn’t the person for the role, since she doesn’t show much distress over her husband or daughter’s condition throughout much of the film. Pamela could be an answering machine and little would change.

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Richard is all about control, or the lack thereof. Part of his plan is to show what can happen when society is detached from its supposed saviors, which is plenty cliché on its own, but Operator does gift him with a reach that makes him a bit more imposing than a mere orator. Though he has hired goons to cause the accidents and execute another plan, none of them know of each other, giving him an omnipresence and deniability that few other antagonists have. He’s slim in the personality department, as are all of the characters here, but he and his adversary are adequate enough.

The Thrills: I’m accustomed to repeating the ubiquity of the first two Die Hard’s premises and management of stakes, but the third film hardly comes up. The Olson’s refuse to reinvent that suspense, but they do a palatable job revisiting the nick-of-time aspects of it within their own film.

Having a ticking clock is still generic, no matter how it’s sliced, but having varying results when it reaches zero is still moderately novel. Jeremy and Howard get roughed up by a speeding semi-truck after Pamela reports a car accident, finds a man committing arson at the behest of Richard, and runs into a bank robbery by connecting the dots. Each one of these little setpieces is entirely implausible, but all are competently filmed and given a decent amount of urgency and threat to keep the cops obedient.

Call centers are tough places to make entertaining, and Operator is another on the list that fails to generate suspense out of visualized audio spectrums and dropped calls. The most rote of all the movie’s pieces, the scenes here tend to repeat, with Pamela trying to notify Jeremy of the hostage taker’s hack followed by getting cold feet after Richard threatens Cassie for the nth time. Though there is an attempt to make a shift change suspenseful, it doesn’t land since the writers have already confirmed their adherence to the formula, making the tease of variance more insulting than stimulating.

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Inevitably there’s a convergence of characters, with the cops intercepting Richard’s parallel bank robbery, causing a standoff in which the already acquired money has to trade hands for the safety of Cassie. There’s no mistaking how this is all going to end, and the final confrontation is watchable, but hardly thrilling – like the majority of the film’s efforts to engage.

The Technics: Surely those behind Operator knew that they were making low-grade stuff, but what’s admirable about the result is how hard they tried to make it seem otherwise; stretching the budget across many fronts even when doomed to the bargain bin.

Many of the usual low-budget restrictions are glaringly present, such as weak dialogue and shoddy logic, but the real issues are self-made. In all honesty, I’m unsure how licensing agreements for brands and their quirks translate to film, but what I am sure of is the negative effect of seeing a real item (like a smartphone, in this case) with real branding (Sprint, in this case) using poorly composited phone numbers and obvious stock sound effects when the real thing is literally right there. A lot of that is present within the movie, breaking whatever minor degree of immersion is sporadically generated.

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Compromise is rarely a good thing for a film, but it’s hard not to appreciate a filmmaker’s attempts to have their cake and eat it too. The Olsons’ didn’t have much to spend, but Operator still tries to cover a wide range of locations, from a suburban sprawl to a local bank to the call center itself, while including a suspense sequence in each. The aforementioned compromise is the CGI, which is suboptimal in every instance, but the practical work wasn’t skimped on.

Hardly special, or even all that good, Operator isn’t an invigorating sit, but it tries harder than necessary. It covers its ground in a short time, but weak writing, forgettable acting, and obvious restraints keep it stuck on the lower end of the operation.

Operator is currently available on Digital Platforms. If that isn’t quite what you were looking for, FilmTagger can suggest a few different titles.

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