It takes a very long time for the protagonist of “Ecco” — or its viewers, for that matter — to figure out just who (or what) he is. This espionage/fugitive tale in the “Bourne” mode, albeit with less emphasis on physical action, also “echoes” films like “Memento” and “The Prestige” in its convoluted, puzzle-like narrative. But there’s more repetition and ponderousness than compelling intrigue in the end result here. The biggest mystery about this polished but underwhelming thriller is how in this day and age a starless feature from filmmakers without a track record managed to open on 200-odd U.S. screens. That’s a major leap of faith unlikely to be rewarded by much box-office traffic.
The opening setpiece has a private planeload of a shadowy corporation’s board members meeting a collective premature end at the hands of a pilot, who parachutes out before letting the vessel crash. The story then plunges into what seem to be two different time periods in the life of that assassin (producer and co-story creator Lathrop Walker). In one, he’s getting serious with a photographer (Helena Grace Donald as Abby) when she discovers he has many aliases, carries a gun and kills people for a living. In another, he is trying to live anonymously, toiling on a commercial fishing boat and coming home to his pregnant spouse (Tabitha Bastien).
Both these attempts at a normal life become violently imperiled by forces from Michael-slash-Peter’s killer-for-hire past, who seek to reclaim him. In order to save himself and any loved ones still alive (or about to be born), he must eventually retrace his own murky roots, a trail that leads to a wheelchair-bound mastermind “father” (Michael Winters) and beyond.
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All this back and forth between different (but all-too-similar) strands soon grows rather tedious. Once audiences realize it’s not going to get any clearer, the piecemeal storytelling structure comes off not as ingenious but as a labored gimmick that prevents the film from gaining much suspense momentum. It doesn’t help that the two female leads are hard to tell apart, not just physically but because their character definitions scarcely go beyond casting adoring glances at (and having arty sex scenes with) the hero. For his part, generically handsome Walker doesn’t have the charisma to singlehandedly float the movie in a role this constantly-onscreen yet deliberately vague. He’s perfectly fine, yet he’s playing precisely the kind of role that requires a star we already identify with to create a hero out of near-nothing.
Support turns are uneven as well. Still, you can’t really fault any of the actors here for failing to transcend a script so confusing and fussy yet hollow. Though the dialogue sports more than its fair share of humorless groaners, the true problem runs deeper: This fantasy of an Unstoppable Killing Machine with a questing soul is depthless, yet takes itself verrry seriously.
That’s an unrewarding combination, as hard as first-time feature writer-director Ben Medina works to sell it. Indeed, his thoughtful packaging is a lot more impressive than anything actually in the package: Duncan Cole’s widescreen photography, Regan MacStravic’s production design, Chris Morphitis’ near-constant original score and other key contributions are all attractive, resourceful and effective within presumably limited budgetary means. As a piece of craftsmanship, “Ecco” suggests the makers are ready for major studio assignments. But at more than two hours, this protracted puzzle without emotional involvement overstays its welcome, and leaves little lingering impression.