After taking us to the distant past with his last feature Boudica (2023), director Jesse V. Johnson is now back in the here and now with his latest outing, the espionage tale Chief of Station. Like his earlier One Ranger (2023), this is a much smaller scale affair, with it being more of a thriller with action elements than the full on actioner that some of the promotional material suggests it to be.

This is definitely a lesser film in Johnson’s oeuvre, but it still has many of the elements that raise his films above similar DTV/VOD fare, with high production values, terrific cinematography and some decent performances, which all contribute to make Chief of Station an enjoyable watch, even if it isn’t on par with earlier Johnson vehicles like Avengement (2019) or Hell Hath No Fury (2021). It’s a testament to the high quality of Johnson’s films when a movie like this is unable to live up to the same standards.

The film follows Ben Malloy (Aaron Eckhart), a former CIA Agent and Station Chief who has fallen into a pit of despair after the death of his wife. He finds himself returning to the world of espionage when he learns that the death of his wife wasn’t an accident. Returning to Budapest to investigate, Ben teams up with old colleague Brance (Alex Pettyfer) in order to find out who was behind the murder of his wife.

Through their investigation, they uncover evidence that his wife’s murder may have been at the hands of known terrorist Kharon (Daniel Bernhardt), but it is unclear for what reason. Of course in the world of espionage, the old motto “trust no one” comes into play, with it soon becoming clear to Ben that even those closest to him could be involved in his wife’s murder. His only chance to truly find out the truth may lie with Krystyna (Olga Kurylenko), an old ally of his wife’s as well as with old adversary Evgeny (Nick Moran).

As expected, Johnson keeps everything moving along at a good pace, building up the drama and mystery, with the odd spurt of action coming in to keep the adrenaline pumping. Admittedly, I was quite surprised by the lack of blood and gore in the action scenes, especially considering what Johnson has given us in the past. Saying that, there is an especially painful torture scene that involves needles and fingernails that had me squirming in my seat.

George Mahaffey’s script isn’t exactly what you would call original. You would have to be a newcomer to movies if you were unable to see where the plot is heading, with the twists and turns being obvious as the film progresses, although Johnson’s professional handling of the material helps to somewhat overcome the script’s limitations.

It does help that Johnson has assembled a quality cast, led by the always enjoyable Aaron Eckhart. Similarly to his role in Renny Harlin’s The Bricklayer (2023), Eckhart brings the required depth to his role, something that isn’t always in the script. Malloy is clearly a damaged man which is portrayed particularly well during the film’s opening scenes where we find him walking around in a daze through a supermarket. The grief over the death of his wife is what drives him, although a fractured relationship between him and his son also adds another emotional element for Eckhart’s to incorporate into proceedings.

Like The Bricklayer, Eckhart once again throws himself into the action, although to a lesser extent. While there are the expected shootouts and fight scenes, there is nothing of the same scale as Harlin’s feature, which I would guess is more down to budget limitations. Still, the action Eckhart does get involved with is competently done, with a fight scene between him and martial arts legend Daniel Bernhardt being a definite highlight.

Speaking of Bernhardt, he gets an especially memorable role, with Johnson affording him the screen time that many of the larger budgeted features he has appeared have not. Although he doesn’t really appear until roughly the 40 minute mark, Bernhardt for the most part is the film’s main villain. There is a reveal later in the film to whom his allegiances align with, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that here. Although, to be honest, if you can’t figure out who the real villain of the film is within the first 30 minutes, you haven’t watched enough movies.

Bernhardt makes for an imposing villain, putting the heroes through the ringer. His role does slightly pale in comparison to what he played in Hell Hath No Fury, his last collaboration with Johnson, but as expected he still gives the role his all. I also noted in the credits that Bernhardt was additionally listed as fight consultant, a role he has carried out on several large scale productions such as Nobody (2021) and Lou (2022). While the action may not be on the scale of those productions, it is still skillfully handled, with the performers pulling off a host of impressive moves.

Alex Pettyfer makes less of an impression, with his character being quite vague/bland due to how the story develops. He does get to take part in a small part of the action, but considering his placement in the credits I did expect him to have more screen time.

Bernhardt isn’t the only previous collaborator of Johnson’s to show up here. Most notably, Olga Kurylenko shows up late into proceedings to aid Eckhart, getting involved in the action pretty much as soon as she appears. With it almost being at the hour mark before Kurylenko appears, her part is more of an extended cameo. Even in her limited screen time she makes an impression, although fans of Boudica may be disappointed she isn’t more prominent. Like Boudica, Johnson seems to revel in “uglying” Kurylenko up, with her sporting a massive scar on her face. It certainly makes her look battle hardened, even if her good looks still manage to shine through.

As well as Kurylenko, Johnson has brought in his Hell Hath No Fury lead Nina Bergman, who has a small role as one of Malloy’s former allies. Nick Moran is given a more substantial role as FSB Agent Evgeny. Slightly dodgy accent aside, Moran is good fun, bringing a bit of humor to his morally ambiguous role. 

It isn’t just in front of the camera that Johnson has brought in his regular collaborators, with him once again employing the experience of ace cinematographer Jonathan Hall. As previously mentioned, Hall’s work on the film is excellent, giving the film an overall slick look, perfectly utilizing the beautiful Budapest locations as well as showing the grimier side of the city.

As expected, Sean Murray also contributes another quality score as he has done for Johnson on multiple occasions. Although it isn’t the finest work he has carried out for Johnson, it still makes for a good accompaniment to the on screen action.

Jesse V. Johnson has certainly made better films than Chief of Station, but there’s still a lot here to enjoy, with there being just enough action to keep genre fans happy. It is currently available on VOD and selected cinemas.

Plot: 3/5
Acting: 3.5/5
Action: 3/5
Overall: 3.2/5


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