High on energy if low on credibility, “Line of Duty” stars Aaron Eckhart as a cop from Birmingham, Ala., whose day gets a lot more hectic when he’s caught up in a kidnapping whose victim is under immediate mortal threat. This latest from prolific genre helmer Stephen C. Miller is a little off-putting at times with its undercurrent of pro-police, anti-everyone-else rhetoric — though that may play well with some of the target demographic. In any case, action fans looking for a lot of forward motion could do worse than this lively, increasingly over-the-top feature-length chase. It opens Nov. 15 on U.S. screens, day-and-date with on demand.
Officer Frank Penny (Eckhart) is a street cop with a world-weary, borderline-demoralized demeanor (we don’t find out exactly why until much later), starting his day bantering with a favorite neighborhood kid (Elijah Cooper). Some blocks away, his superiors are orchestrating a trap in which they hope to capture one of the kidnappers of Chief Volk’s (Giancarlo Esposito) 11-year-old daughter (Nichelle Williams). But the perp (James Hutchison) gets away, running straight in the direction of Penny, who hears the fracas on police radio. Despite direct orders to stand down, he gives pursuit, leading to a confrontation in which he’s forced to kill the other man.
This is a disaster, as the child is in a drowning chamber with little time left, and the authorities now have no way to discover her location. Penny is promptly stripped of badge and gun for being a “damn cowboy.” Guilt-riddled over having potentially lost an innocent’s life (not for the first time), he decides to immediately continue the search for her on his own — or rather with the dubious assistance of Ava Brooks (Courtney Eaton).
She’s a pesky internet live-streaming reporter-of-sorts who’s glommed onto the emergency and has a trite, catchphrase-driven Anti-authoritarianism 101 attitude. As the clock ticks, he’s forced to let her ride along in exchange for use of her car. Their crash-, explosion-, and bullet-laden next hour or so soon entangles them with the remaining kidnapper (Ben McKenzie), a real nutcase with an axe to grind against police in general, and zero hesitation at killing anyone in his path.
Though not exactly inspired or original, most of “Line of Duty” is too giddily propulsive to be dull — even if it does grow rather ridiculous, complete with a late sequence in which people are actually hanging off other people dangling from a TV helicopter over a burning building. There’s a lot of last-second rescues and improbable escapes amid machine-gunfire. But more annoying is writer Jeremy Drysdale’s somewhat reactionary subtext, in which cop Eckhart nobly blames himself for incidents in which he’s not at fault, while the civilian world conversely seems populated almost exclusively by crybabies, weirdos, psychos, and people who just get in a man’s way.
Ava and her apparently sole coworker (Jessica Lu as Clover) at “mediaforthepeople.com” are portrayed as young P.C. dilettantes who spout vaguely rebellious clichés about “empowering anyone who stands up and makes a difference” (to which Clover responds “That’s deep, sis”) by providing “the real news” as opposed to “that b.s. fed to you by corporations.” Yet they’re also click-obsessed, illegally eavesdrop on police communications, get hysterical under pressure, and otherwise prompt endless paternal eye-rolling from Penny. Of course, corporate media is even worse, as represented by Dina Meyer’s cynical, ruthless local TV news exec. There are also passing caricatures of society’s supposed ills, such as a black gay bodybuilder in gender-blurring makeup (Gary Peebles), that keep undercutting any serious tension here with condescending broad humor.
If you overlook this crude messaging and just take “Line of Duty” as an action cartoon stacked high with cliffhanging moments, it’s entertaining enough — even the ludicrous arrival of inspirational nonsense and hugs-all-around can be taken as perhaps a tiny bit tongue-in-cheek. Positing Penny as the old-school he-man who barely knows how that dang intranet works, the film nonetheless is very up-to-the-moment in pandering to the notion that nothing is valuable unless it’s watched by some public or another. Not only are nearly Frank and Ava’s adventures streamed online (then picked up by TV), but the finale sees them cheered by a suddenly-materializing rainbow community of ambulance-chasers.
Eckhart gamely throws himself into a very physical role. Characterization-wise, however, he and everyone else here aren’t given much to work with, though they do as well as they can. The talented McKenzie (“Gotham,” “Junebug”) in particular is wasted as a villain who’s so simplistically malevolent, he’s practically foaming at the mouth.
Where “Line” (which until recently was titled “Live!”) excels is in getting a lot of bang for its buck in overall packaging, with solid orchestration of stunt work, crowds, well-chosen locations, and so forth. It’s all maximized by Stan Salfas’ sharp editing and DP Brandon Cox’s widescreen lensing. An occasional CGI element shows its seams, but otherwise Miller proves adept at delivering something close to A-level production values on what were surely B budgetary means. However, as with his recent action-schlock vehicles for Willis, Stallone, Cage, etc. — comprising 10 features in the last seven years — the C-minus material makes you wish he’d aim a little higher.