Like many recent thrillers, Vantage Point is set against the war on terror, as U.S. President Ashton (William Hurt) arrives in Salamanca, Spain to announce new international treaties and efforts in the fight against freedom's enemies. We open in a news van, as harried, hard-bitten producer Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) is orchestrating her camera team and reporters on scene. When reporter Angie Brooks (Zoe Saldana) breaks from the celebratory mood to talk about the protesters outside the courtyard where the crowd awaits the President's words, Rex is miffed about the departure from the script. "We're here for the summit, not the sideshow." Rex has a very definite plan for the day in her head. As shots ring out, the President goes down and explosions ripple through the courtyard, it's clear someone else does, too. ...

Directed by Pete Travis, Vantage Point's plot unfolds as a series of recollections and first-person stories; we begin with Rex's by-the-books coverage turning into a nightmare of murder and mayhem; we flash back to follow Secret Service veteran Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) as he and partner Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) transport the President to the location; we follow American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) as he winds up accidentally videotaping what may be the key to the attempt on the President's life; we follow President Ashton as he weighs the security risk of the speech against the importance of what he's going to say. ... Writer Barry L. Levy's script promises post-modern thrills -- a little Rashomon, a little Blow-Up and The Conversation and even a little Elephant, as we try to get a glimpse of the truth from different perspectives, obsess over small details that promise to reveal the big picture and move through the same events over and over as the journeys of different characters lead up to a moment of shock. But Vantage Point forgets a simple rule of tricky (or, less charitably, gimmicky) premises, which is that the audience's investment in the device should, and must, be matched by the film's investment in the device. When Vantage Point is offering us a series of first-person experiences, we're relatively engaged; when it breaks away from that -- to show us a catch-all sequence encompassing the actions and reactions of a catch-all group of Spanish bystanders, cops, conspirators and others -- we're brusquely dislodged from the one-person-one-viewpoint structure we've had up to that point.

Worse, Vantage Point's supposedly-unconventional structure masks a terribly conventional action thriller. A lot of the movie is undermined by what I refer to as Suspiciously Good Actor Effect; essentially, whenever you're watching a thriller and you can't quite figure out what a talented actor is doing playing such a bland, seemingly-inconsequential role, you have figured out what the actor is doing playing such a bland, seemingly-inconsequential role: They will wind up being the betrayer, the secret villain of the piece, and you will have seen it coming a mile away thanks to Suspiciously Good Actor Effect. Worse, the revelation of the betrayer is such a mind-boggling stretch that you're only left breathless by it insofar as it strains the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

Travis's previous film, Omagh, revolved around a bombing plot in Northern Ireland; you could suggest that he's trying to make the same kind of leap here as Paul Greengrass did going from Bloody Sunday to the Bourne movies, a jump from realistic, political thrillers to glossy big-budget-big-studio movies that will, ideally, benefit from the gritty textures and techniques of the earlier indie work. But Vantage Point is another example of how Hollywood loves to give us politically-charged thrillers with no actual politics in them. President Ashton's plans to fight terror are never discussed; the grievances and motivations of the people trying to kill him are never explored.

And that two-dimensional, by-the-books backdrop is a shame, because Travis's cast is all far better than the actual film they're in. Weaver's squirrelly energy makes her scenes snap; Quaid's haunted and hunky as a Secret Service agent back on the job after taking a bullet; Fox makes the jump to big-screen heroics well in his first post-Lost role; Hurt gets to do some fairly stirring speechifying as the President ("We have the world's sympathy now; we have to honor that!"); Forest Whitaker brings regular-guy concerns and courage to the role of a modern Abraham Zapruder. Even James LeGros and Bruce McGill squeeze a little zest out of the few lines they have from within the President's inner circle. But the actors playing the conspirators -- Edgar Ramirez, Said Taghmaoui, Eduardo Noriega and Ayelet Zurer --are fairly thin ciphers, there only to shoot and plot and doubt and seduce as required to drive the plot forward around our heroes and stars.

Vantage Point starts with a nice sugar-rush sense of dimwit possibility to it -- it gives off the same suggestion of greasy, guilty satisfaction as the heat-shimmer scent of a good burger -- but, as I said, the film's mid-movie departure from the central conceit knocks it off the tracks, and the series of plot problems large and small that come after don't help any. (Again, no spoilers, but a climactic moment of moral decision-making by the bad guys is fairly laughable; after having witnessed our conspirators murder dozens of innocents, it's hard to imagine why they'd hesitate for a millisecond at the prospect of one more.)

At some future date -- it will be a Sunday, and it may be raining -- I'll stumble upon Vantage Point on some lower-echelon cable channel, and I'll probably sit and enjoy the clean mechanics of the cinematography and stunts and the loose charm of the performers; at the same time, I won't necessarily be on the edge of my couch, either. Vantage Point's summed up by its name; from some angles, it looks like an above-average studio thriller, but from others it falls out of sight fast.