Milla Jovovich plays a falsely accused Foreign Service Officer who works to thwart a terrorist plot as she runs from the authorities in “Survivor,” a sturdy wrong-woman thriller that feels grotesque in its citations of 9/11 and other intimations of real-world import, but also steals a few good moves from “North by Northwest” and “The Fugitive” for a solid middle section. A generic title and low buzz factor are hurdles for this day-and-date release, a meat-and-potatoes offering from helmer James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta,” “The Raven”).
The prologue, in which two Americans in Afghanistan are captured after a helicopter crash, gets the proceedings off to an unpromising start; the poorly staged action and a lack of background density give off the vibe of a videogame cut scene. One of the men is identified as a potential bargaining chip, and his fellow soldier is quickly immolated.
Cut to London, several months later, when the U.S. embassy is on orders to be stringent in issuing visas. The embassy’s new security officer, Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich), is on the lookout for chemical and gas specialists. She quickly casts her suspicions on Emil Balan (Roger Rees), a Romanian doctor who claims to want to visit the U.S. for a medical conference. But Bill Talbot (Robert Forster) dismisses the notion that there’s anything odd about Balan; he carps about the processing backlog and having to come up with excuses when people start missing flights.
His motivations seem sketchy at best. Kate’s are personal: In the movie’s tackiest appropriation, she flashes back to a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. She also keeps a postcard (“Greetings From Windows on the World!”) from friends who died that day. Kate’s inquiries into Balan ruffle feathers, and soon after, a restaurant where she’s dining with her colleagues is bombed.
The perpetrator, Nash, already seen at work in a bespoke-timepiece shop, is identified as “the watchmaker,” one of the most-wanted assassins in the world. Given that he’s played by Pierce Brosnan, it’s amusing to hear him described as having “had so much reconstructive surgery, no one knows what the hell he looks like.” The movie finally kicks into gear with Kate’s emergency rendezvous in the area of Kensington Gardens. When her contact there attempts to kill her, she turns the tables and shoots him — only to be photographed by onlookers with camera phones (a scene that seems clearly modeled on the U.N. sequence in “North by Northwest”).
This sets off a gripping middle section, as Kate works to unravel a terrorist plot and all of London chases after her. Her main ally is her boss, Sam Parker (Dylan McDermott), who comes to her defense, while a British inspector (James D’Arcy) follows close on her trail and a U.S. ambassador (Angela Bassett) decides that Kate might as well be dispatched. (“If you get her in your sights, do not hesitate.”) Among other instances of adroit London location work, the movie includes an exciting chase through St. Pancras station and its adjoining tube stop, although echoes of the 2005 Underground bombings cast a pall over what should be escapist fare.
McTeigue’s crosscutting generates significant suspense as Kate’s pursuers work to revoke her access, often just seconds behind her. But in the New York finale, set on New Year’s Eve — and, to appearances, shot with only a bare minimum of work in Gotham — the movie begins to fizzle again, raising questions of plausibility both minor (foot and street traffic look awfully light) and major (are the villains dragging out their actions for dramatic effect?). The wrap-up, too, seems abrupt, essentially asking viewers to hand-wave the international forces who’ve been marshaled to stop Kate. A closing title card honoring American law enforcement’s antiterrorism efforts feels unearned in the context of a slick chase thriller like this one.
The thudding techno score and Danny Ruhlmann’s digital lensing have the effect of making “Survivor” look cheap rather than stylized. (This is one of those films that makes you wonder whether all agents poring over their computers late at night do so with the lights turned off.) But except in some of the sequences discussed above, editor Kate Baird’s cutting is topnotch.