To say that Renny Harlin has had a rollercoaster career would be an understatement. In the space of several years he reached the absolute highs with Cliffhanger (1993), only to drop to the bottom with Cutthroat Island (1995), a film that was so poorly received that it bankrupted Carolco.
Personally, I wouldn’t lay the blame for the collapse of Carolco at Harlin’s feet, as the company was already heading that way even before a foot of film was shot for Cutthroat Island. Sure, it was both a financial and critical disaster, but I still feel that Harlin was used as something of a scapegoat. Also, while I wouldn’t say the film is perfect, Cutthroat Island isn’t the unmitigated disaster that its reputation suggests.
Since then, Harlin has churned out a range of movies, ranging from the terrific Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) to bottom of the barrel fare like the more recent Misfits (2021). In between these he has fit in some enjoyable movies like Deep Blue Sea (1999) and 12 Rounds (2009) that whilst aren’t in the same league as something like Cliffhanger or his earlier Die Hard 2 (1990), proved he still has what it takes to put together a competent actioner.
He even had a brief sojourn from Hollywood, where he relocated to China, helming such films as Skiptrace (2016) and Bodies at Rest (2019). His latest film The Bricklayer finds Harlin back working for Hollywood, this time under the prolific Millennium films.
Although it doesn’t reach the heights of his best work (it doesn’t attempt to), The Bricklayer is nowhere near the car crash of The Misfits, sitting somewhere in the middle. It is filled with too many cliches and poor writing to be truly memorable, with it almost seeming like a pastiche at points, but Harlin constructs an attractive looking actioner with several exciting set pieces that make The Bricklayer worthwhile viewing.
The Bricklayer of the title is Aaron Eckhart’s Steve Vail, a retired C.I.A. agent living a quiet, unassuming life doing bricklaying work. To everyone around him he is a simple building contractor, but to the C.I.A. he was one of their best agents. He is asked by his former boss O Malley (Tim Blake Nelson) to come out of retirement to assist the C.I.A. in capturing one of their former agents who has gone rogue.
Victor Radek (Clifton Collins Jr) is blackmailing the agency, having evidence of their shady dealings, including betraying him. For Radek the blackmail isn’t just about money, with his reasoning being all the more personal. He and Vail have a background hence why O’Malley has seeked Vail out. Partnering him up with Junior Agent Kate Bannon (Nina Dobrev), Vail must travel to Greece and track down Radek before he is able to bring the C.I.A. to its knees.
Obviously Harlin and his producers have been watching the likes of John Wick (2014) for inspiration, with many of the action scenes going out their way to emulate a similar style. The hand to hand combat and shootouts are all carried off relatively well, and although not of the same class as something like John Wick, still manage to entertain. Standouts are an exciting fight scene during a party where Eckhart takes on a group of Greek mobsters using any bottles or glasses at his disposal.
A later, extended warehouse shootout is probably the films best action scene, and the one that closest copies the John Wick Style, with Eckhart energetically taking down all comers with ease, leaving multiple goons dead in his wake. Then there’s the car chase which takes up a good portion of the finale, with Harlin and editor Iain Erskine getting as much excitement out of the sequence as possible.
Happily, The Bricklayer leans into its R rating, with no shortage of bloody head shots during the action scenes. Millennium films have a tendency to cut corners with their special effects, with many of their productions utilizing fake looking digital blood. For the most part The Bricklayer is able to avoid this, with most of the effects looking decent. There is still some awful looking rear projection during some of the driving scenes which is forgivable. The effects are certainly better here than Expend4bles (2023), another Millennium production which cost considerably more than this film to put together.
The Greek locations and some beautiful cinematography from Matti Eerikäinen also help raise The Bricklayer above other low budget fare. What ultimately lets the film down is the cliche and frankly laughable script from Hanna Weg & Matt Johnson. Based on the novel by former FBI agent Paul Lindsay, there isn’t a cliche or action movie trope that the screenwriters miss out. The script is almost comical in its attempts to shoehorn in reasons for Eckhart to rely on his bricklaying skills in the midst of battle. Be it using a trowel as a weapon or exclaiming how important the right cement is, it seems like Weg and Johnson really want you to remember this guy is a bricklayer.
I don’t know why, but Arron Eckhart has become something of a DTV/VOD star of late. I understand he has a reputation of being intense to work with, which is perhaps the reason he is showing up in films like Ambush (2023) or Muzzle (2023). Still, he never phones it in, with him being suitably intense and charismatic during the entirety of The Bricklayer.
This isn’t his finest role by any stretch of the imagination, but he is able to inject a lot of character and personality that isn’t exactly on the written page. The role of Vail was originally earmarked for Eckart’s old Olympus has Fallen (2013) co-star Gerard Butler. That was years ago however, with Eckhart eventually taking on the role although Butler still remains as one of the film’s producers.
As well as hitting the necessary acting beats the role requires, Eckhart physically throws himself into the part, with him being heavily involved in the action. I do suspect there were stunt doubles used on occasion, but Eckhart does seem to be doing a lot of the action himself.
Nina Dobrev doesn’t fare as well, with her seeming miscast in the role of a no nonsense C.I.A. Agent. Partly this is to do with the writing, but at the same time she seems unconvincing when taking part in the film’s action scenes. This isn’t her first brush with action films, as she co-starred in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (2017). Her character worked a lot better in that film as it was mostly played for laughs, whereas here were meant to take her seriously.
Then there’s Clifton Collins Jr, an effective performer in the right role, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them. He makes for an ineffective villain. Eckhart’s Vail speaks of how Collins’ Victor Radek was one of the most dangerous people he knew but there isn’t much evidence of this in the film. He never poses a believable threat to our heroes no matter how much Collins tries.
Adding some class and a bit of humor is Tim Blake Nelson as Vail’s old boss O Malley. He only appears in a handful of scenes but makes the most of his small amount of screen time. The same is true of the lovely Ilfenesh Hadera, who is able to bring some personality and charm to her character that isn’t to be found on the written page. If you can’t guess her characters motivation past her introduction you’ve not watched enough movies.
The Bricklayer wont make anyone’s best of lists at the end of the year. It’s a perfectly serviceable action thriller that entertains for its almost 2 hour run time, and proves that Renny Harlin still has what it takes to make an enjoyable actioner. As well as having the upcoming Strangers reboot, which is now apparently a trilogy of films, Harlin has another Eckhart action movie on the horizon, Deep Water (2024). By the synopsis it sounds like Harlin is once again in Deep Blue Sea territory, so it will be interesting to see if he can bring the same level of fun.
Plot: 2.5/5 Acting: 3.5/5 Action: 3/5 Overall: 3/5