The Cold Light of Day

One reliable way to spot a mediocre film is when it stars big-name American actors but doesn’t play in U.S. theaters until after it’s been released everywhere else. That’s certainly the case with “The Cold Light of Day,” an unnecessary but inoffensive espionage thriller that you have to assume was an inch away from going straight to DVD in the States before someone decided to dump it in 1,500 theaters with hardly any advertising, possibly as a “Producers”-style tax write-off.

Bruce Willis is in the cast for paycheck purposes (and boy, when his shift is over, he is out of there), and Sigourney Weaver plays an ice-blooded spy like the trouper she is, but the actual star is Henry Cavill, the English actor who Warner Bros. hopes will soon be best known as the new Superman. No one has seen “The Man of Steel” yet, but I feel safe in saying it’s more realistic than “The Cold Light of Day.”

Cavill plays Will Shaw, a young businessman who has reluctantly torn himself away from work to take a vacation in Spain with his father (Bruce Willis), mother (Caroline Goodall), brother (Rafi Gavron), and his brother’s girlfriend (Emma Hamilton). Will and his dad, a government bureaucrat who had to move the family around a lot during Will’s childhood, butt heads on every subject. But you can bet they’ll start working as a team when the rest of the family gets kidnapped!

Turns out Dad isn’t so much a “government bureaucrat” as he is a “CIA agent.” Enter Ms. Weaver as Jean Carrack, an old friend and colleague to whom he turns for help, helpfully summarizing for her (and us) what the issue is here: “The group we took the briefcase from? They want it back.” Get the briefcase, save the family.

But it soon falls on Will alone to be the action hero, and he rises to the occasion in the manner of most mild-mannered civilians in movies, which is to say he’s suddenly very good at firing a gun, escaping from rooftops, and engaging in car chases. In the course of determining who is trustworthy, he joins forces with Lucia (Veronica Echegui), a young Spanish woman whose uncle was a local contact of his dad’s.

The screenplay, by Scott Wiper (who made the Steve Austin vehicle “The Condemned”) and John Petro, could plausibly have been written as part of a contest to produce the most bland, derivative, and generic action screenplay ever known. It isn’t outrageously stupid or laughable; it just delivers a stock set of situations in the usual order, like a third-season episode of “The A-Team.” It does benefit a little from the efforts of director Mabrouk El Mechri (“JCVD”), a savvy technician who gives the unremarkable story more visual flair than it deserves (except in the fight scenes, which are jittery).

Henry Cavill doesn’t make much of an impression as an action star, though it’s hard to say how much of that is his fault. His character is poorly drawn and often jerky, getting angry at the Spaniards for not speaking English and just generally being a pill. Granted, he has a lot on his mind, what with his family being abducted and people trying to kill him. But the everyday civilians in movies who become expert marksmen and skilled getaway drivers usually become charming, too. Why keep all the other cliches and omit that one?

C (1 hr., 33 min.; PG-13, one F-word, a fair amount of moderate violence.)

Reprinted from Pajiba.