No intended franchise can recover from a dud launch, and “Stratton” is that kind of stillbirth: an action movie that feels as though collaborators lost heart before the cameras started rolling, perhaps in part because “Superman” Henry Cavill jumped ship just five days before shooting was scheduled to begin.
The resulting misfire certainly can’t be blamed on Dominic Cooper, who replaced him in the title role. Still, there’s definitely something dispirited and clock-punching about this flat actioner, adapted from the first in a series of eight espionage novels written by Duncan Falconer, an ex-operator for the Special Boats Services sector of Britain’s MI6. Adequately directed by “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” helmer Simon West, the U.K. production is limping into U.S. theaters during the post-holiday doldrums, having already opened last year in most territories.
The whole enterprise feels desultory from the jump, with dialogue that flatlines whether aiming for banter or urgent import — or both, in the opening sequence when Sgt. John Stratton (Cooper) and U.S. Navy Seal Marty (Tyler Hoechlin) take an underwater approach to sneaking into a biochemical plant on the Iranian coast. Discovering the workers there already dead — presumably poisoned by their own weapon — they’re fired upon by forces that turn out to be led by former Soviet evildoer Barovski (Thomas Kretschmann). The latter fatally wounds Marty, while absconding with “Satan’s Snow,” a killing gas he soon uses to exterminate an entire village in the Ukraine.
Barovski’s resurfacing pleases no one, least of all Stratton’s boss Sumner (a terribly arch Connie Nielsen), who once seduced what she now calls “the most dangerous man I ever met” into becoming an informer, and thought him dead the last 20 years. She orders him tracked down ASAP by Stratton, plus colleagues played by Gemma Chan, Jake Fairbrother and Tom Felton (whose character is soon blackmailed into double-agentry). Joining them is Austin Stowell as a new Yank arrival whose over-zealous desire to avenge Marty’s demise proves a strategic liability.
The action hops to Italy for a bit before returning to the U.K., where Barovski leads the good guys on chases via both speedboat and double-decker bus. Unfortunately, these complicated setpieces somehow feel more cumbersome than energized, with odd technical flaws (dodgy explosion VFX, muffled sound FX) further muting impact. Kretschmann carries his usual air of authority, yet we never get a vivid sense of this villain’s motivations, rendering him a generic baddie. Cooper is credible and relaxed, though his low-key turn lacks the charismatic panache needed to float an otherwise uninspired enterprise of this type.
That’s a problem sported by “Stratton” as a whole: Solidly pro in overall packaging yet cliched, pedestrian and indistinct in specific contributions, this thriller never finds (let alone raises) its own pulse. It desperately needs just the kind of confident, self-mocking flair West brought to popcorn action terrain in “Con Air” two decades ago, but which has increasingly eluded him since.