An ambitious Brit indie that doesn't quite meet the expectations it raises, "Eliminate: Archie Cookson" starts as a droll sad-sack spin on spy spoofery, but by the end has shifted from comedy toward a dramatic heft its spindly legs can't support.

An ambitious Brit indie that doesn’t quite meet the expectations it raises, “Eliminate: Archie Cookson” starts as a droll sad-sack spin on spy spoofery, but by the end has shifted from comedy toward a dramatic heft its spindly legs can’t support. While that awkward tonal mix ultimately makes for an offbeat curio rather than a fully satisfying night out, d.p.-turned-writer-helmer Rob Holder’s debut feature remains a diverting harbinger of better work to come. Offshore home-format sales look likely.

Title figure (Paul Rhys, in his first bigscreen lead since 2002’s “Food of Love”) is a failure by any standard, particularly that of his ex-wife, Camilla (Claire Skinner). Once an Intelligence Dept. up-and-comer, he’s now slunk sufficiently down the ladder to hold his position — these days little more than office grunt work — solely thanks to pitying, influential in-laws. While former spouse and horribly precocious son Hector (Freddy Downham) still occupy tony digs and high social status, Archie spends nights drinking in his dreary flat, days sleepwalking through Russian-to-English translation duties.

He’s literally asleep on the job (slumped out of sight in an audio transcription booth) when assassins with silencers gun down his co-workers over some missing old Cold War audiotapes that could compromise the integrity of government, as well as two elderly gentlemen spymasters (Philip Manikum, Nicholas Day). The two coolly decide that Archie — who now has the incriminating reels in his possession — must die too, dispatching veteran Ennis (Paul Miller) to do the deed. But since Ennis and Archie were colleagues in better days, Ennis gives him 24 hours to return the goods and hopefully save his own life.

Naturally, things don’t go as planned, though once “Eliminate” turns into a relatively straightforward espionage film, its budgetary and imaginative limitations become more apparent. What starts out as a dry sendup of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”-type mellers grows steadily less comedic, and without the emotional weight or clever, suspenseful twists needed to up the narrative ante. In particular, the film takes too seriously the protag’s relationships with Camilla and new squeeze Lucy (Georgia King), a slightly ditzy bombshell of suspect loyalties. The finale flirts with tragedy, but the lightweight pic can’t handle it.

There are enough appealing elements here to make one wish for a remake that correctly balances the seriocomedy, ideally hewing more toward the ironic, satirical tenor David Hamill’s score (breezily nodding to ’60s genre pics) maintains throughout. Holder demonstrates a sure hand with his accomplished cast, a nice feel for deadpan scene pacing, and an ease with the bricks-and-mortar aspects of making a modest enterprise look like a pricier one.

Rhys is always watchable, but the show is pretty well stolen by Miller, whose American-accented friendly foe elevates fair-to-good material with a very funny mix of deep-dyed cynicism and unexpected hominess.

Eliminate: Archie Cookson

U.K.

Production

An Agent Pictures production. (International sales: Seven & Seven, London.) Produced by Ioanna Karavella. Executive producer, David Bunker. Directed, written by Rob Holder.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Stein Stie; editor, Valentina Riva; music, David Hamill; production designer, Nicola Dietmann; art director, Tanya Miller; costume designer, Amanda Hambleton; sound, Daniel Chu Owen; sound designers, Mark Kenna, Alex Hudd; visual effects supervisor, James Price; assistant director, Simon Haveland; casting, Camilla Evans. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Oct. 4, 2011. (In Mill Valley Film Festival -- World Cinema; Montreal World Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Paul Rhys, Claire Skinner, Paul Ritter, Georgia King, Ewan Stewart, Nicholas Day, Phillip Manikum, Richard Cambridge, Freddy Downham, Juan Herrera, Gabriel Vick, Marc Danbury.
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