In the annals of spy thrillers, there is no MacGuffin more reliable than a briefcase with unknown contents. The Cold Light of Day features such a MacGuffin – or, more accurately, depends on it entirely. It factors into the life of Will Shaw (Henry Cavill), a young business owner who unwittingly becomes involved in a case of international intrigue while on vacation in Spain. Before being assassinated (and you should know that this happens within the first fifteen minutes, so I’m really not giving away anything crucial), it’s revealed that his father, Martin (Bruce Willis) was not a cultural attaché for the U.S. Embassy, as he claimed he was pretty much all of Will’s life. In actual fact, he was an undercover CIA agent, and as it so happens, he’s the one who originally obtained the briefcase before turning it in to the proper authorities. Naturally, the person or persons he took it from now want it back.
The more you look into this movie, the more you’ll realize that it really isn’t about anything. It’s just an exercise in spy thriller craft. We have the multinational conspiracy, which isn’t explained in great detail but is obviously serious enough to warrant shootouts, rooftop fights, and car chases that involve alleyways, flights of stairs, local landmarks, and café eating areas along with ordinary roads. We have the race against time, Will having a twenty-four-hour window to deliver the briefcase to the Israelis, who have kidnapped his mother (Caroline Goodall), brother (Rafi Gavron), and his brother’s girlfriend (Emma Hamilton) while they were yachting. We have the mysterious CIA operative (Sigourney Weaver), who pries Will for information despite claiming to want to help him. And yes, we even have the obligatory female counterpart for Will (Veronica Echegui), who sole purpose is to shock the audience with astounding coincidences.
There’s a fine line between an homage and a story that goes by the numbers, and The Cold Light of Day crosses it. It’s not so much that the film is unoriginal, although that certainly does contribute to its problems; it’s more a matter of not making very much out of what little is has to work with. There’s no sense of style, no feeling that it was made with love and respect to the espionage genre. It exists, but it doesn’t really live. Not even its car chase can stir all that much excitement, considering we fully expect that the characters will violate every rule of the road. And there are only so many shots I can take of Henry Cavill running away in a panic before it becomes stale. All such shots are immediately followed by close ups of Cavill stopping short and panting in a sweat-soaked shirt before hiding behind a wall or pillar.
For a movie I knew would require suspension of disbelief, I was surprised to find that I still couldn’t buy into it. Mostly, I blame the character of Will. How is it possible that he could navigate through his father’s complex web of connections despite having no previous knowledge of his double life? How could he go so easily from point A to point B in a city he’s unfamiliar with and with absolutely no information on the whereabouts of his family? How could he become nothing less than an action hero despite having had no training as an active agent? The answer to the first two questions is pure luck, which doesn’t cut it in a spy thriller. The answer to the third is for the sake of entertainment and out of convenience for the filmmakers, who clearly don’t want to spend the extra time developing the character.
An attempt is made at creating drama by establishing Will and Martin as having a strained relationship, the former bitter about having to move so often during his childhood. Adding fuel to the fire, Will’s business has just declared bankruptcy, and he spends the first ten minutes of the film frantically talking on his cell phone and sending out texts. I’d say that the theme is realizing that family is more important than work, except I’d be applying a subtext to a story that clearly doesn’t have one. Even with Will’s frantic pursuit of his remaining family, it never feels as if he’s doing it out of love; it only feels as if he’s going through the motions, performing exactly the way he’s supposed to perform within the confines of a spy action movie. It’s not a mission, but a contrivance. How can we invest in his family emotionally when it doesn’t seem as if he can?
In terms of agenda and personality, Weaver’s character is pretty much who we expect her to be. In terms of capability, she does have a few surprises up her sleeve. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially in a story as manufactured as this one. There comes a point near the end of the film at which her eagerness transforms into a bizarre kind of action movie insanity. In one scene, while behind the wheel, she becomes so drunk with power and adrenaline that I half expected her to resurrect her immortal line, “Get away from her, you bitch!” As with everything else about The Cold Light of Day, her character is nothing more or less than what convention requires her to be. We all know that a premise doesn’t have to be original in order for a film to be good. One could even argue that there’s no such thing as an original premise. That being said, certain movies do need a little extra something in order to work. This one doesn’t have it.