Since his 1997 debut film, Con Air, Simon West has been a solid B+ action filmmaker. Over the last twenty years, he’s directed ten feature films ranging from the surprisingly decent (for its day) video game adaption Tomb Raider (2001) to the Jason Statham remake of The Mechanic (2011). He’s responsible for the best film in the Expendables franchise (Expendables 2), though that’s not exactly high praise. But over the last five years, the kinds of films that West specializes in have fallen out of fashion and into the DTV realm. There are plenty of talented directors in the DTV space making solid and occassionally spectacular action films, does West have what it takes to join their ranks?
John Stratton (Dominic Cooper) is the leader of an elite team of British anti-terrorists. After his team is betrayed on a mission, their token American is killed and Stratton barely survives. Now, he must track down the terrorist leader Grigory Barovsky (Thomas Kretschmann) and uncover the mole within his organization.
Stratton is an action film that is competently produced but is completely devoid of creativity, originality, or heart. If you’ve seen more than five espionage actioners in your lifetime, then you’ve seen everything this film has to offer but better. Even the film’s title, Stratton, speaks to its lack of creative inspiration. It should go without saying that John Stratton is NOT John Wick, he is nowhere near as iconic enough to warrant an entire movie named after him. Any number of silly, generic action movie titles would have served it better.
Dominic Cooper is a charismatic actor, no doubt, but he doesn’t get many opportunities to show it with the character of Stratton. He, along with his costars, is saddled with a script that barely gives them anything to do or give the viewer any reason to care about them. Connie Nielson, who recently wowed us in Wonder Woman, is stuck in autopilot as Stratton’s superior. She gets all the usual character quirks as the badass boss who struggles to control the super-awesome action guy in her unit. Worst of all is Kretschmann as the film’s main badguy, Barovsky. Feeling more like a henchman who got a lucky promotion than a man who is universally feared, he’s the kind of villain that you know is evil because a character in the movie TELLS you he is. Barovsky has very little presence and, though he does get to do the occassional badguy stuff, never really makes an impression or poses a real threat.
We’re a long way from a long-haired Nicolas Cage saying “put the bunny down”. The best of Simon West’s filmography had a weirdness to it that cut through the often formulaic scripts he was given. This film has no such weirdness, so it falls to the action to make it worthwhile. As is usually the case for his films, the action in Stratton is generally well executed and clearly shot with a few impressive stunts sprinkled throughout. Unfortunately, nothing you will see here will surprise or amaze; it’s all things you’ve seen before in bigger, better films. What the filmmakers were able to accomplish with their modest budget is admirable, but their approach to action needed to be more creative to make it exciting.
Sadly, without the grand scale and larger than life stars that 90s era actioners are known for, movies like Stratton just aren’t very entertaining. It’s not exactly a bad movie, but it’s also not a very good one either. In a world where DTV action is defined by the likes of John Hyams and Isaac Florentine, directors like West need to put in the work to really compete. 20 years ago, he directed the third best movie in the Nic Cage action trilogy (The Rock, Face / Off, and Con Air), but today he’s making C+ actioners like Stratton.