God only knows why Steven Spielberg is so hellbent on making an action hero out of Shia LaBeouf, but with Transformers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and now Eagle Eye, every single film that he's produced or directed in the last two years has featured LaBeouf running from or through massive CGI effects as shit explodes. It's easy and ugly to play amateur Spielberg biographer, but I don't think anyone will quibble overmuch with the suggestion that overseeing the transformation of an unabashedly nerdy Jewish kid into a popcorn idol is probably more than a little personally satisfying for the filmmaker. But whatever the motivation, I find myself wondering, for the third time, if LaBeouf is really up to Spielberg's lofty goals for him. He's not half-bad when he gets the right role, but he's just not very credible in elaborate action setpieces, although at least this time he's not trying to convince us that he's a '50s greaser.

Eagle Eye is essentially a Hitchcockian "wrong man" thriller, with a notable lack of Hitch's stone-faced drolleries. After an opening sequence in which some sp00ky arm of the US government takes out a funeral that may be - but probably isn't - a front for a terrorist leader, we're introduced to the meat of the film: slacker Jerry Shaw (LaBeouf), working as a copy story clerk in Chicago, has no sooner been hit with the whammy of his overachieving twin brother's death than he finds a massive stash of weaponry waiting in his apartment, and a mysterious woman calling him to issue him cryptic instructions that ought to keep him ahead of the FBI, in the person of Agent Tom Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton), although just by the skin of his teeth. Meanwhile, this same woman is threatening a single mother, Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) that her son, gone to D.C. on a school band trip, will be killed unless she does everything the voice commands. Luckily for the audience's attention span, pretty much the first thing the voice does is get Jerry and Rachel together in one place, sending them across the country on a mysterious quest.

The anecdote goes that Spielberg came up with an idea several years ago for a techno-thriller based around an unseen figure forcing an everyday regular fella to do her bidding by using common consumer electronics as surveillance equipment. In the years since he hatched the idea, American culture has only become more helplessly addicted to cell phones and other shiny computer-driven gizmos, making Eagle Eye even more timely than ever. But it's still pretty telling that Spielberg didn't elect to direct the thing himself - nor is it apparent that he ever intended to in the first place - which maybe should tip us off that something isn't quite right with the film's screenplay. Namely, everything.

For starters, there are two howling plot holes in the story: the smaller revolves around a suitcase that Jerry and Rachel must acquire in Indianapolis, for initially obscure reasons; when we find out what's in the case, and why it's necessary, it only seems like the voice has gone to a whole lot of work to enable something that could have been achieved with a lot less fanfare and fewer steps, almost as though the voice was trying to pad out the film's running time by an extra 20 minutes (this same problem applies to the whole plot, now that I think about it). The bigger hole isn't revealed until close to the end, and at the risk of being vague, it goes like this: the voice picked Jerry for a very specific reason, because without him she can't begin a certain process; but, she already had begun that process at the same time she "activated" Jerry.

That's not even the script's most noticeable flaw. For that, we must turn to its obvious desire to be a modern-day version of those great paranoid political thriller from the 1970s, with the War on Terror replacing the national fallout from Watergate. Now, the idea behind Eagle Eye is that all the mechanisms we've put in place to protect ourselves can, ironically, be used as weapons against us. I know this not only because it's extraordinarily obvious, but because one character helpfully says as much, in as many words, near the end. It doesn't take much insight to observe that the Patriot Act and its anti-terrorist kin have largely been used to suck away our basic and necessary freedoms, yet Eagle Eye seems based on the notion that this is the height of cutting-edge political commentary. This is exactly the kind of film that conservatives have in mind when they moan about the knee-jerk liberalism in Hollywood, and I find that I must very reluctantly agree with them; not because I don't think the film's theme is entirely true, but because in its eagerness to teach us all a civics lesson, it permits dogma to entirely overwhelm entertainment.

Besides, the film misses the most important part of those '70s films, in that it doesn't take place in a reasonable facsimile of our world. Set in late January, 2009 (something that you have to be paying attention to learn), the film is flat-out science fiction with its cavalcade of exploding crystals and Dark Knightian cell phone surveillance and computers that can decode sound waves from the vibrations of a coffee cup and LCD televisions in every car of the wildly underfunded Chicago public transit system. There's just no way to square the basic premises of the film's technological landscape with what we actually see around us every day.

Even fixing all of that, Eagle Eye doesn't really have the ingredients to be a great thriller anyway, in no small part because neither Monaghan nor the preternaturally boyish LaBeouf is terrible credible in their roles (by the way, slapping some week-old stubble on LaBeouf doesn't make him look like a moody twentysomething; it makes him look like a 14-year-old who's so excited to have facial hair that he refuses to shave). They're both too soft and normal to be up for the exertions the story requires of them; a big part of the fun of something like North by Northwest lies in watching the comfortable Roger O. Thornhill pick up the skills he needs to survive one at a time, but in Eagle Eye, it takes Jerry the copy boy all of one scene to be able to leap out of skyscrapers and dodge speeding el trains.

On top of that, there's the little matter of director D.J. Caruso, a TV vet who last worked with LaBeouf in that other Hitchcock riff, Disturbia, a film that was pretty decent in every way except for its direction, but which seems like a master class next to his newest. Frankly, it appears from the evidence of Eagle Eye that Caruso can't direct action scenes to save his dick, and I'd like everybody who bitched about how badly Christopher Nolan managed a car chase on the streets of Chicago to bask in the incoherent awfulness of Caruso's attempt: lots of cars crash into other cars, and occasionally you can even figure out where it's happening relative to the heroes, but mostly you can't.

Along the way, Caruso and the script (by an absolute clusterfuck of broken-up writing teams and draft-polishers), manage to waste a pretty decent cast: Thornton gives the film its only really great scene in his introduction, interrogating LaBeouf; an uncredited Julianne Moore, playing the mysterious voice (I kept thinking it was Joan Allen, but whatever) radiates menacing calmness in the way that only a great diva can; the sometimes-awesome Rosario Dawson is shockingly wasted as an Air Force exposition box, and Michael Chiklis tries to pump something like humanity into a wasteland of glossy production and illogical writing, only sometimes successfully.

Finally - as I know that this is not something that everyone will care about - I'd like to come back to the film's opening in Chicago, the fourth big action movie this year at least partially shot in my sweet home (I walked past the McDonald's where Rachel learns that her son is in peril on my way to the theater). It's cheap as hell to point out where a film fucks up a city's geography and call it some kind of legitimate flaw, but we don't mind cheap shots here at Antagony & Ecstasy, right? Anyway, if you know the city's layout at all, try this on for size: the big train-foot-car chase scene starts at the Quincy El platform, which in the film's world is about 90 seconds and three stops from the Wilson stop; by car, Wilson is just blocks from Grand, where a right turn takes you into what appears to be Rogers Park before you end up at a South Side junkyard. That's just a short barge ride from a river that doesn't appear to be in Illinois or Indiana at all. And they say that Hollywood doesn't respect the flyover states!