Though raised in Brooklyn, actor turned producer/director Danny A. Abeckaser was born in Israel. Unfortunately, that birthright isn’t enough to lend authenticity to “The Engineer,” which feels very much like an American B-movie stab at turning Israeli anti-terrorist operations of 30 years ago into formulaic action fodder — without much action, even. A miscast Emile Hirsch plays a Shin Bet agent tasked with hunting down the mastermind behind a series of suicide bombings. Arriving at yet another low ebb in Israeli international relations over Palestinian issues, this frequently unconvincing and clunky would-be thriller will have a hard time stirring much enthusiasm in most territories. Lionsgate is releasing to limited U.S. theaters and home formats on August 18.
It begins, with a burst of explanatory onscreen text, in the fall of 1993, as Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat were in Washington D.C. attempting to broker peace under the auspices of President Clinton. (A tip to the movie’s own muffled political leanings arrives when a character sees that POTUS on TV and mutters, “I don’t trust this guy.”) Their efforts are not helped by an ongoing rash of suicide bombings thought to be orchestrated by one Yahya Ayyash, aka “The Engineer,” a Hamas operative in hiding. Mostly targeting Israeli civilians, these attacks have the entire region in a state of fear.
The crisis is such that expat American Etan (Hirsch), a Mossad interrogation specialist suspended for utilizing excessively rough techniques, is dragged back into active service by colleague Yakov (Abeckaser), who tells him, “I need you. Israel needs you.” It’s a moment typical of screenwriter Kosta Kondilopoulous’s flatfooted dialogue. Etan is assigned to work with Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) experts played by Oshri Cohen, Dan Mor and Yarden Toussia-Cohenn, tracking down any leads to the whereabouts of the deadly “Engineer.”
Unbeknownst to them for a while, there’s another team also surreptitiously angling towards the same goal. Because his daughter died on a Tel Aviv bus boarded by a suicide bomber, a U.S. Senator (Robert Davi) has called on Avi (Angel Bonanni), who owes him a favor, to avenge her death. Avi brings in Tzahi Halevi and Omer Hazan as fellow former Mossad turned mercenaries.
Unconstrained by government minders, this trio carves a bloodier path seeking their elusive quarry — though that grows even thornier once the domineering Senator himself shows up, risking an international diplomatic incident in his zeal to taste revenge first-hand. Eventually the two camps cross paths, to the initial dismay of the officially sanctioned side. Nonetheless, they decide to collaborate in a final stretch that closes in on Ayyash (played by Adam Haloon).
What should be an exciting climax only reinforces the film’s shortcomings, however, as director Abeckaser shows little aptitude for the mechanics of building suspense, overall or in individual sequences. This ends up feeling like one of those movies where the “action” consists largely of figures yelling at each other about things that happen off-screen. The screenplay lays out its intrigue in simplistically obvious fashion, and an air of forced, play-acting machismo (with dire lines like “Smugglers make my balls itch”) is only heightened by the bludgeoning percussion of Lionel Cohen’s score.
Though decently shot by cinematographer Barry Markowitz on credible locations, the film never ignites as a thriller. Meanwhile, basic plausibility is constantly distanced by script, casting and language choices. Even a screenplay with less one-dimensional characters would have had trouble selling Hirsch as a steely purveyor of state-approved torture. “The last man I interrogated, I almost killed,” he admits. That statement seems so at odds with the star’s boyish personality, it almost gets a laugh.
Abeckaser himself, a habitué of organized crime movies (including bits in a couple of Scorseses), plays Etan’s superior like some Joisey high school football coach, while Davi essays his senior politician in the style of a stereotypical mob boss. Smatterings of Hebrew and Arabic aside, the non-U.S. actors are saddled with speaking primarily in English, which makes no sense for the setting and is handled with varying levels of awkwardness.
Attempting to cover all bases while managing none particularly well, “The Engineer” ends with more onscreen text, now offering an olive-branch sentiment to the effect that most Israelis and Palestinians alike still desire a peaceful resolution. But that conciliatory gesture is immediately contradicted by a final shot of a fictive, presumably present-day female suicide bomber in full, cartoonish “fanatic” form. It provides an appropriate end note for a movie that pays rather inept lip service to complex political issues, but at heart is on the level of a lesser, later Charles Bronson movie — and one that skimps on the expected cheap thrills.