It makes a great deal of sense that Renny Harlin’s The Bricklayer was once earmarked as a Gerard Butler vehicle. Butler remains a producer, while Aaron Eckhart takes the role of former spy Steve Vail, and does a passable growly, grumble-voiced tough-guy mutter. Though admittedly, without Gerry’s sweaty macho charisma, the finished product loses some oomph. The plot is pure dumbed-down airport-novel espionage with little investment, stakes, or suspense, but thanks to a brisk pace and action that whips damn hard, this offers up an entertaining thriller that scratches a specific itch.
Based on a novel of the same name by Noah Boyd writing as Paul Lindsay, which is the curious and peculiar way this is credited, The Bricklayer plays like a throwback to the slick, sturdy programmer that once populated theaters across the nation. We used to get movies like this seemingly every weekend, mid-tier, mid-budget action fronted by a couple of big or big-adjacent names, a cast of character actors you recognize from other things but can’t quite place, and a steady, solid, workmanlike journeyman at the helm. They’d show up at the multiplex with little fanfare, do their thing for a few weeks, then disappear with just as little hoopla.
This sort of thing now mostly goes straight to the VOD market, and in fact The Bricklayer is getting a day-and-date release, and one must imagine the bulk of its revenue will come from the at-home digital market. I don’t mean to denigrate DTV movies by saying this, because I love them dearly, but this feels different, bigger. This falls more in line with well-financed studio fare than many of those movies. (I can’t find a trustworthy dollar figure, but this certainly has more money to play with than many of its counterparts.)
A lot of that is certainly due to Harlin. He’s had a wild career, that’s for certain, and the quality is all over the place. But with movies like Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and more, he’s worked on a grand, well-funded scale and brings that scope to bear here. Primarily set and shot in Greece, The Bricklayer looks fantastic, full of grandiose location footage and an expansive world. Nothing ever feels hemmed in or constrained. Action scenes that play out in single locations are never limited, or chase scenes that get cut short before they start, aren’t unnecessarily truncated. (Whereas in, say, a Mission: Impossible movie one of these might spool out over an entire city, a villain takes off on a motorcycle, but crashes by the end of the block, leading to a much more economical foot pursuit.) Harlin knows how to deliver exactly what this movie, and its audience, want and need. For instance, why does it start raining immediately before a massive rooftop brawl? Because it looks awesome, that’s why.
The plot manages to be both empty and inconsequential at the same time it’s overly stuffed and convoluted. After leaving the CIA on less-than-great terms, Vail spends his days listening to jazz, or course, and laying bricks. That is, until his past comes calling in the form of a former acquaintance (Clifton Collins Jr.) who, once thought dead, resurfaces on a mission to blackmail the Agency. Vail’s old boss (Tim Blake Nelson) sends him to Greece, his old stomping grounds where he is still persona non grata, unless we’re talking about his former love interest/new CIA boss in town, Tye (Ilfenesh Hadera). Along for the ride, Vail has rule-following rookie Kate (Nina Dobrev), whose personality basically extends to being uptight, not liking music, and being allergic to dogs. (Guess what she’s doing in her last shot of the movie?)
Instead of introspection or character development, the script from Hannah Weg and Matt Johnson provides details. And for all the details, and there are so many details, they don’t amount to much. We get standard spy-movie tropes, with secrets and betrayals and shadowy motives. This comes from a time where the world at large believed political scandals had far reaching consequences, a stance that seems almost quaint now. And though The Bricklayer thankfully avoids forcing an awkward, unwarranted romance between Vail and Kate (there is a humorous jazz-fueled moment of romantic melodrama between Vail and Tye however), every obligatory twist and turn plays tepid and bland. The script does, however, include a few quirks, like Vail smuggling in dog cancer drugs for an old Greek acquaintance. Flourishes like this, and a handful of others, don’t bring a ton to the picture, but create a bit of unusual texture and personality.
The Bricklayer is pure cinematic junk food. While it’s empty and a movie you’ll never think about again, it’s also satisfying, enjoyable, and hits the spot. The characters aren’t particularly deep or engaging, the plot doesn’t stand out from dozens of other espionage thrillers, though it hilariously forces the issue of the CIA having the moral high ground, and nothing leaves any lasting impression. But it also knows exactly what movie it is and what it wants to accomplish, and in Harlin’s hands, with a charismatic-enough lead, and strong, and plentiful, action scenes, the result is a fun, quick, entertaining movie, and sometimes that’s what you want. [Grade: B]