University of Washington graduate Lathrop Walker plays an assassin who can’t quite break free of the killing business in “ECCO.” (Citadel Film Group)

University of Washington graduate Lathrop Walker plays an assassin who can’t quite break free of the killing business in “ECCO.” (Citadel Film Group)

UW grads’ ‘ECCO’ gets an ‘A’ for visuals, ‘C-’ for storytelling

This stylish, locally made existential action movie was directed by a Coupeville native.

The idea of a locally made feature film by a couple of University of Washington grads usually conjures up a humble coming-of-age story or a rough-edged slice of mumblecore.

“ECCO” is not that. This film, getting a national release this weekend, is a slickly made eye-popper with a background of international intrigue.

Despite a grabby opening sequence, “ECCO” very nearly fails to get out of the starting gate. But stick with this movie a bit, and it slowly — very slowly — moves into the kind of ambitious territory Christopher Nolan likes to stick his nose into.

The story has its share of tricks, so we’ll keep the synopsis to a minimum. At its center is a lethally-skilled hired assassin, Michael, played by Lathrop Walker. He appears to be trying to live a new life, but his employers keep pulling him back in.

The storytelling is complicated, but the real problem in the opening reels is the awkward dialogue and the clumsy pacing. This is the kind of atmosphere-heavy movie that’s at its best when people keep their mouths shut.

Halfway through the film, we glimpse the ideas underpinning the various puzzling references, and things get more intriguing. And if those ideas aren’t truly original enough to carry the day, at least director Ben Medina’s visual and sonic approach fills in the empty space. (He concocted the story with leading man Walker — both are UW alumni.)

Coupeville native Medina is an accomplished commercial director, and you can see that in the densely layered images (which use a variety of Puget Sound locations). At times the movie looks like a calculated work of art — there’s an overhead shot of bloodletting that pops like a Jackson Pollock painting — and at other times it looks like, well, a TV commercial, albeit a very polished one.

Given that these stylistic flourishes share space with regular bursts of violence, “ECCO” strives to be one of those arty action pictures — think of Ryan Gosling in “Drive” or George Clooney in “The American.” In this case, the hero is not only dealing with a job to do or his self-preservation, but with the more existential questions of his identity.

With any luck, and maybe a bit of tightening, it could achieve cult status. Helping the cause is the film’s soundtrack, which is a smothering combination of ambient sound and some effective, occasionally hypnotizing music by Chris Morphitis. In many ways Morphitis is the film’s secret weapon — even when the storytelling is less than sure-footed, the music sweeps you along for the ride.

“ECCO” (2 stars)

Shot around Puget Sound by a couple of UW grads, this existential action movie isn’t always surefooted in its storytelling, but director Ben Medina provides quite a bit of visual flourish along the way. Lathrop Walker plays a hired assassin who finds a variety of reasons to question his place in the world.

Rating: Not rated; probably R for violence

Opening Friday: Everett Stadium, Meridian, Seattle 10, Cascade Mall

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