“Cypher” (2002.) is not what you would expect. Small budget, unremarkable cast – even the cheesy promotional posters do nothing to avert the impression of a B-movie. Yet, the director – Vincenzo Natali is a man proven to do more with less. In “Cube” (1997.) he delivered a fine horror film that has since gained a cult following. In Cypher he attempts a sci-fi thriller in the vein of “The Manchurian Candidate”.  Starring Jeremy Northam as the corporate spy Morgan Sullivan and Lucy Liu as the enigmatic Rita Foster, Cypher weaves a complex, intriguing plot of deception and identity loss.

From the onset it’s obvious that Morgan is not a happy individual. He’s unemployed, his wife is pressuring him to accept a job he doesn’t want to take and his suburban life is, well, boring. As a means of escape he applies for a very different sort of profession – corporate espionage. Assuming the identity of Jack Thursby, he’s tasked with collecting information for Digicorp – the archetypal “faceless” corporation. This new lifestyle appeals to him, but strange events during his assignments clue him in that all is not as it seems. Unraveling layer upon layer of deception, Morgan finds himself in a game beyond his skill and understanding. His former life crumbles about him and even his very identity becomes questionable as he’s pulled deeper and deeper into the “no holds barred” war of Digicorp and their rival, Sunway Systems. “Will he manage to escape this labyrinth where every outcome seems unfavorable?” – is the question that dogs Morgan and the viewers at every turn until the very end.

Northam is effective in his portrayal of Morgan/Jack,  an average guy caught up in events beyond his control. His kindly manner and vulnerability make him easy to sympathize with and his obvious, constant tension fits the inescapable situation he’s in. Liu plays her “femme fatale” role effortlessly and quite well, managing to be at same time mysterious, threatening and enticing. The rest of the cast is passably good, but the Northam/Liu duo and their interactions make up the core of the film.

Shot in a surreal style with great use of lighting and contrast, backed by a subtle musical score “Cypher” is a pleasure on the senses, even with the obvious limitations of the budget. The lighting and cinematography accurately reflect Morgan’s mental state and deliver the tone required of an espionage film. This results in an immersive atmosphere that keeps one’s attention even when the plot makes a twist too many. Things take a turn for the worse in the final act where the ambitions of the script overcome the budget. One scene in particular, Morgan’s infiltration of a Sunway compound, falls flat through cheap and unimaginative set design, not to mention a lack of logic. Similarly the (inevitable?) ending chase scene is a bit more bombastic than the film actually needed after an entirety of well paced (and relatively slow) events.  However, the overall positive impression remains intact. Cypher breaks no new ground, but does its job well and is consistently engaging and rewarding to watch. If you like identity questioning sci-fi such as “Paycheck” and “A Scanner Darkly” then you’ll certainly like Cypher.