It must have been a tough blow to see the newly minted Man of Steel bow out of a project that potentially had franchise capabilities five days before shooting was to commence, but that’s exactly what happened when Henry Cavill left Stratton over “creative differences.” I have to give him credit for doing so, though, since interviews circa late 2014 have him sounding pretty excited about the prospects of bringing to life a book series (written by former Special Boat Service commando and current pseudonym Duncan Falconer) of which he seemed a genuine fan. You have to then wonder if Falconer’s own adaptation was the issue or that from Warren Davis II. Whoever’s to blame, the final result confirms Cavill’s decision. There’s little here to conjure any excitement.
Director Simon West opens the film with a frame of text equating the UK SBS with Navy SEALs, setting the stage for what should be a string of espionage-centered sequences of elite-level expertise. Besides the opening scene’s underwater journey through pipes leading into Stratton (the recast Dominic Cooper) and Marty’s (another Man of Steel in Tyler Hoechlin) intel-based target of WMD-caliber weaponry, however, there’s nothing else to really set this actioner apart from another. It’s more “24” in its execution than “Mission Impossible” in any true covert machinations. There’s a chase on jet propulsion-rigged pontoon boats and Stratton owns a boat being fixed by his clichéd father figure/drinking buddy Ross (Derek Jacobi), but other than that water is inconsequential when compared to the many generic spy-lite tropes.
Stratton has them in spades—enough to wonder whether West delivered a longer, robust cut before watching the studio chop it into a 90-minute series of tropes alone. This is how mediocre the plot progression proves despite the drop-in action of the beginning. Whereas Stratton and Marty’s assault on their target comes with tense moments devoid of oxygen and surprising twists as far as their expectations of the location, the eventual reveal of Grigory Barovsky (Thomas Kretschmann) exiting his SUV far enough away from the ensuing firefight to take his time and aim tells us all we need to know. Exposition about the SBS or Stratton is unnecessary. We don’t need a violent attack to get here first either. This scene’s sole purpose is introducing hero and villain.
From there we receive uninspired leadership rhetoric constantly shutting down the overt desire for revenge (Why let the potential annihilation of a city ignite a hero into action when the death of a colleague can make things personal?) and guys who buck authority being given and giving out the benefit of the doubt (We all love that “Oorah” mentality of guys on the ground blindly wielding carte blanche since only they can know the true cost of freedom, right?). Stratton’s boss (Connie Nielsen’s Sumner) smugly challenges him to figure her allegiance out rather than defend her innocence. American SEAL Hank (Austin Stowell) joins as the impulsive “hothead” since Stratton’s already-labeled “hothead” needs to be responsible. And an office romance might be brewing between Stratton and Aggy (Gemma Chan).
It’s like a soap opera. Sumner babysits Stratton, he looks after Hank, and Aggy, Spinks (Jake Fairbrother), and Cummings (Tom Felton) watch their backs when they’re not also in the field themselves. Someone is probably a mole, random leads probably won’t prove more important than expendable loose ends showing the SBS means business, but Barovsky might just prove more than the two-dimensional baddie with a grudge and means to blow-up hundreds of thousands of unwitting bystanders he seems. If you believe that last one you’re delusional because he’s barely allowed to speak let alone do anything beyond stoically standing still as a target to narrowly miss in order to further prolong the action. There’s absolutely no depth to anything that happens because all we’re given is the chase.
We don’t even know the target until too late in the game to tug at heartstrings with glimpses at the highly populated area at risk. We skim the surface without hope of diving below, every sequence feeling identical to the last regardless of setting as a result. And it’s all shot with such unwavering severity that we can’t even have fun laughing at the film. The actors are too invested, their performances striving for an authenticity the shallow script doesn’t deserve. So while we want to giggle at dialogue using three quick lines to go from “It’s not working” to “It’s suddenly working” to “This is where we’re going” devoid of any suspense the filmmakers may believe they’ve created, we can’t because everyone is so damn earnest.
The lead’s tragic backstory is allowed two lines, his support system of one is too brief comic relief, and his coworkers are stereotypical one-note versions of their TV counterparts from any police procedural currently on air. Some of the action is at least engrossing enough to enjoy for its logistics, but it also lacks tension considering it always pits Stratton against Barovsky. There are no missions where the former isn’t present and no inclination that the latter isn’t the only villain worthy of having a name. So what chance is there that the battle won’t end in a stalemate for the war to continue? None. This cast of effective actors deserves better than going through the motions. And if we’re to believe Cavill, so does the character.
Stratton hits limited release, VOD, and On-Demand Friday, January 5.