As the Hollywood casting search for a new, rebooted Lisbeth Salander starts up again, spare a thought for poor Noomi Rapace. Having stepped aside for Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s 2011 film, the original girl with the dragon tattoo is still proving her mettle for the part in far lesser vehicles like “Unlocked” — an anonymously enjoyable espionage thriller that, for purposes of memory, all but self-destructs the second the closing credits begin to roll. Starring Rapace as a steely CIA operative on a trust-no-one mission to save London from biological terrorism, Michael Apted’s efficient but unstylish film has only a prestigious cast of supporting slummers — Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, John Malkovich — to distinguish it from a “Spooks”-style TV outing. None of them, it should be said, brings as much to the table as Rapace, who gives this in-flight special the stern commitment of a star hungry for better things.
Modern-day action cinema is still running a brisk trade in Jason Bourne knockoffs, and while “Unlocked” claims no points for narrative or stylistic ingenuity, it is still a rarer pleasure than it should be to see a woman charged with the butt-kicking. Not that her gender feels anything more than incidental. Yet another brooding, closed-off agent who doesn’t play by the rules, Alice Racine (Rapace) is a pretty generic action hero; that only the most minor of script tweaks separate her from being played by, say, Colin Farrell marks a win for casting parity, if not for screenwriting nuance. It’s left to Rapace to insert stoically wounded expressiveness between the lines of Alice’s strictly functional dialogue — along with vague blanket allusions to her “rocky background.”
What we do learn is that Alice has been taken out of the field since failing to prevent a terrorist massacre in Paris some years previously. (The attack is fictitious, which strikes a faintly exploitative note in light of recent real-life events in the French capital.) Now quietly serving as an undercover intelligence agent in London, in the guise of a social worker, she’s drawn reluctantly back into action when word spreads of an ISIS cell plotting a large-scale nerve agent attack on the city. In the film’s most anxiously realized tension sequence, however, she surmises that the CIA higher-ups who have put her on the case aren’t quite who they claim to be. Cue an increasingly daft narrative spaghetti junction of reversals and double-crosses, casting doubt on the trustworthiness of all Alice’s supposed allies, from her fatherly American minder (Douglas) to her short-tempered Langley bureau chief (Malkovich) to her flinty MI5 contact (Collette, given the least to do of the headliners, but rocking a machine gun and platinum pixie crop with equally lethal aplomb).
At least we know right away that Orlando Bloom, wildly miscast as a cat burglar turned aide to a desperate Alice, should be regarded with caution: The actor’s wobbly, double-cheese Cockney accent doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Saddled with the most loudly echoing clunkers in Paul O’Brien’s script — “Most people didn’t lose their mates in the 7/7 Tube bombing,” he explains by way of groansome motivation — Bloom’s broad, inadvertently amusing performance lends “Unlocked” a glimpse of the truly inept film it could have been. Rapace’s brisk, businesslike demeanor, by comparison, looks like the right way to go; she and an autopilot Apted (a long way from his 1999 James Bond outing “The World Is Not Enough”) just about keep matters on her level. (Further down the cast list, there’s a glimmer of future-star promise in Tosin Cole, snappy and spirited as one of Alice’s social-care wards with CIA potential.)
Technical contributions are generally proficient, though budgetary limitations are evident in the somewhat hemmed-in location work and curtailed action setpieces: Rapace may once again prove herself a kinetic physical performer, but an awful lot of the film’s most rousing combat takes place in wholly unspectacular business suites. In its closing beats, “Unlocked” — the title of which, by the way, is so randomly assigned that it could as aptly and easily be “Unidentified” or “Unremarkable” — rather optimistically opens itself up for a sequel. It’s hard to see the film generating enough commercial interest to greenlight further Alice Racine adventures, though its leading lady is clearly up for a sturdier franchise.