A film that shouldn’t have seen the light of day

The title says it all. Not in a literal sense mind you, as it has no discernible relevance to the narrative of the film, but in the sense that like the film, it is so ubiquitously stale, automated, and inane, that it really isn’t worth uttering unless you happen to be a politician or a football player, in which case your aim is to reel off as many facile platitudes as you can possibly muster in order to appease the semi-slumbering masses. As the press literature proudly boasts, The Cold Light of Day is the first English language film in thirty years to be shot entirely in Spain, and while this may initially seem strangely insignificant, it does become more pertinent as the final credits roll and one realises that this titbit is in fact the most memorable thing about the film. So, if you’re looking to be part of something historic and you weren’t around to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall, then this is your chance.

Cavill arrives in sunny Spain to join his family on a sailing trip. He is greeted at the airport by his sour-faced father (Willis), and following a series of picture-perfect postcard scenes smattered with a dose of familial disharmony, we sense it won’t be long before all hell breaks loose. Our suspicions are swiftly validated after the rest of the family are kidnapped, Willis (to his son’s surprise, but not ours) turns out to have been a CIA agent all along, and Cavill finds himself in inhospitable foreign territory, dodging bullets, trusting no one, and battling to free his mother and younger brother from mysterious captors. This familiar scenario, with its roots in Hitchcock and more recent incarnations including Polanski’s Frantic (1988), is conceived in order to place an ordinary person into an extraordinary and heroic situation that is intensified by serial jeopardy, thus encouraging audience empathy and engagement. However, the screenplay is so utterly predictable – with car chases, running gun battles and some rooftop acrobatics slotted in at regular intervals – and so simply devolved from a ready-made set of generic ingredients that it renders the life-and-death issues at stake for our hard-pressed hero totally meaningless.

The Cold Light of Day highlights how tricky it is to judge the line between tradition and innovation when assembling a film that has such little aspiration beyond being a standard genre entry. The director does have a grasp on the formula, but clearly lacks the confidence and conviction to bring anything new to the party, unless there are still viewers surprised by the relatively early demise of one of the top-billed actors, or who haven’t worked out that Sigourney Weaver’s fake Hollywood smile in a business suit is a clear sign of malign intentions. Despite its poor genetic heritage, the film does at least offer a valiant attempt at sketching in a troubled father-son relationship before the carnage commences, though Cavill subsequently offers little in the way of personality to an admittedly standard-issue role. Elsewhere, director El Mechri and his DoP make the most of the Spanish locations, from the sun-splashed white of coastal communities to the labyrinthine back streets and historic squares that make Madrid an effective setting for this kind of material.

At the end of the day (another fine example of vacuous football phraseology), this bog-standard, lazy, wannabe Bourne bottom-feeder simply delivers a series of thriller clichés packaged in the blandest of manners, although for this very reason it will likely be far longer than thirty years before anyone bothers attempting to emulate it, so a rare cliché it certainly is.   

The Cold Light of Day (15)
Dir: Mabrouk El Mechri; US thriller, 2011, 93 mins; Henry Cavill, Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Willis, Verónica Echegui
Premieres July 12
Playing nationwide