Thursday, August 17, 2023

The Engineer: The Shin Bet’s Hunt for a Terrorist

After his death, the Palestinian Authority named a street after Hamas’s mastermind of suicide bombings, Yahya Ayyash. That is the kind of partner for peace they are. Arafat even took time out from his talks with Rabin to praise the mass murderer. This film tells the story of how they got him. In 1993, peace was supposed to be breaking out in Israel, but explosions were rocking the streets of Tel Aviv instead, as viewers vividly see in Danny Abeckaser’s The Engineer, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

The film’s opening attack is particularly vicious in its execution. First one Hamas terrorist blew up his explosive vest on a crowded bus. Then a second detonated his after first responders rushed in to aid the wounded, followed by a third nearby. These should not be merely considered acts of terrorism. They are crimes against humanity that Yahya Ayyash, a.k.a. “The Engineer” planned and directed (from a safe distance, naturally). In this case, they also kill the daughter of fictional Senator David Adler.

The American-born Etan is like the Jack Bauer of the Shin Bet. He was on suspension after getting a little too carried away during his last interrogation, but after the recent mass murders, it is all hands on-deck, definitely including his. They will have some competition from a group of mercenaries recruited by Adler, to avenge his daughter. Etan has strict instructions from the Israeli PM himself: no strongarm stuff. However, his old associate Avi (whom Adler helped immigrate to American after some unspecified trouble) has no such constraints. Nor do the fellow former Mossad agents-turned mercs Avi recruits for the job.

Dead Shot, The Engineer is more serious and ambitious than the average straight-to-VOD action movie, but it falls somewhat short in the execution. Kosta Kondilopoulos’s screenplay reflects the complexity of the geopolitical dynamics faced by Israel in the mid-1990s and some of the acts of terrorism depicted are truly horrifying. However, the scenes presumably intended to show off Etan’s interpersonal skills, both with his family and his colleagues, drag interminably.

Emile Hirsch is also completely unconvincing as an action lead. Angel Bonnani is much more credible and far more charismatic, as the borderline “disavowed” Avi. Of course, the great Robert Davi is reliably colorful as the grieving but still wheeling-and-dealing senator. It is interesting to see Arab-Israeli actor Hisham Suleiman turn up playing Osama, one of Ayyash’s accomplices, after portraying the older and less vigilant version of Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in
Ghosts of Beirut. Hopefully, playing terrorists who get their just desserts does not lead to trouble for him.

The Engineer
helps convey a sense of the random violence Israeli citizens endure, which is something. It is probably Abeckaser’s best film to date, but it is hard to get around Hirsch’s weakness when it is so front-and-center. Only recommended for its honest depiction of terrorism and the resulting suffering it causes when it hits free streaming platforms, The Engineer opens tomorrow (8/18) in LA at the Lumiere Music Hall.