March 5, 2009


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Echelon Conspiracy (PG-13)
Eagle Eye crashes into War Games and the baffling result is Echelon Conspiracy, which feels like it was filmed in somebody’s garage and furnished with cardboard sets and the equally cardboardy Edward Burns.

Max Peterson (Shane West) is finishing up an assignment putting a security system in computers somewhere in Asia when he receives a sleek new cell phone in a box with no return address. But this isn’t just any cell phone — its apps appear to include “Predict the Future” and “Cheat at Blackjack.” First, it prevents Max from getting on a plane flight that crashes. Then, the phone convinces Max — who, as you’ve probably guessed, is kinda stupid — to change his travel plans and head to a European casino, where it helps him win at assorted games of chance. Since he uses the phone in the most obvious ways, he’s taken into custody by the casino’s security team, run by American John Reed (Ed Burns), a former FBI agent. Eventually, current FBI agents, including Agent Dave Grant (Ving Rhames), show up to check out Max’s phone, which they believe is connected to a string of similar “people have extraordinary luck after receiving a new phone”-type incidents. A moronic sting operation leads to the inclusion of Martin Sheen — as Raymond Burke, some sort of intelligence agency higher-up, but basically he’s playing a crazed villainous version of his West Wing president — and the discovery that the suspicious cell phones might be part of Echelon, a secret government program.

What is Echelon? It’s a computer that monitors all the computers in the world, plus all the traffic lights, hotel security cameras, slot machines and, oh, probably toasters and hair dryers as well. Yes, my computer can’t always open e-mail without crashing but this computer can see and hear and know everything going on in the world. And, a recently defeated bill in Congress would have allowed it to download itself onto every computer in the world, making Echelon a server-free omnipresent entity.
What could go wrong with that?

Oh Edward Burns, where did it all go off the rails, buddy? I suppose some would argue that from The Brothers McMullen Burns was never on the fast track to stardom, but hey, that wasn’t a bad effort as first films go. Burns has some good qualities. He tries here to be the cocky been-there agent with the knowing smile. It almost sort of works when the dunderheaded plot and the “Ouch, my ears!” script don’t get in the way. But this movie is laughably, shockingly, A Sound of Thunder-ly bad. It goes so far into awfulness that I started to kind of like it during the big finish — all explosions and shooting intercut with scenes of someone typing on a computer and saying “learn, learn!” with such urgency that I did in fact, laugh out loud. (My second favorite scene in the movie: the slow reveal of Shane West, as if to say “ta-da! Shane West, ladies and gentlemen”; Once and Again, E.R., one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — why, he’s practically George Clooney.)

This movie feels dusty and desiccated, like a 25-year-old Fruit Roll-Up. It seems left over from the 1980s Cold War dawn-of-the-computers films. The George W. Bush portrait in Crazy Sheen headquarters seems somehow out of place — I almost expected Ronald Reagan’s mug grinning down from the wall. Good luck finding this time warp in the theaters much longer — I’m sure this black hole to 1983 will close in a week or two if not before — but if you’ve got some space in the Netflix queue you might want to call dibs on Echelon Conspiracy. Nuttiness this good doesn’t come around often. D+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, some sexuality and brief language. Directed by Greg Marcks and written by Kevin Elders and Michael Nitsberg, Echelon Conspiracy is an hour and 46 minutes long and distributed by After Dark Films.