Tag Archives: crime thriller

Exit Stage Willis

Midnight in the Switchgrass

by George Wolf

This is the third Bruce Willis film so far this year. That leaves 13 more in production, and 1 in development. And if you’ve seen even a few of the titles in Bruno’s output over the last several years, you can assume a couple things about his latest right away.

First, regardless of his presence in the poster and/or trailer, Willis will only show up for a few scenes in the actual film. And secondly, his character won’t be that integral to the story.

Both assumptions prove true with Midnight in the Switchgrass, a thriller that manages to work itself a notch or two above most films in the “Exit Stage Willis” subgenre.

Willis is Karl Helter, the old and tired FBI partner of agent Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox). Rebecca’s been going undercover as a hooker to try and catch the serial killer (Lukas Haas) stalking truck stops and roadside motels around Pensacola, Florida (a character inspired by real life “Truck Stop Killer” Robert Rhoades).

There’s a string of similar cold cases dating back several years, a fact that still haunts Florida state police officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch). When a new victim turns up, Byron is compelled to assist Rebecca and Karl any way he can.

Well, he assists one of them, anyway, because Karl conveniently bails before Rebecca is kidnapped by the killer and events turn mildly interesting.

This is the debut feature for both writer Alan Horsnail and director Randall Emmett, though Emmett’s long tenure as a producer appears to have honed his ability to craft a generic crime drama that imitates more gripping films – one in particular.

A killer’s identity that is never in doubt, paired with parallel storylines and certain other flourishes I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, all bring a serious Silence of The Lambs vibe.

That’s rarefied and ambitious air that Switchgrass can’t live in, though it does carve out a few respectably tense manhunt moments. Fox and Hirsch rise above some heavy-handed dialogue – even Bruno seems halfway interested while he’s around – and Haas is effectively creepy.

Add it all up, check the scorecards, and on the sliding scale of Willis its rank is roughly equal to Citizen Kane.

Midnight in the Switchgrass is available on VOD July 23rd.

Family Ties

The Shadow of Violence

by George Wolf

Just how Irish is The Shadow of Violence?

Well, it’s got enough of its Irish up that hearing “Whiskey in the Jar” play on a barroom jukebox feels like being part of an inside joke. And that’s about the only funny business in a film that fuses multiple inspirations into one searingly intimate rumination on a life defined by violence.

Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) was once a promising Irish boxing champion, but left the gloves behind for the reliable income and familiar treatment offered by the Devers crime family. As their chief enforcer, Arm is feared, which often hampers his relationship with his ex Ursula (Naimh Algar) and their autistic son Jack.

The delicate co-existence of Arm’s two worlds is a constant struggle, but when family patriarch Paudi Devers (Ned Dennehy) finally orders Arm to kill, it becomes clear there is room for only one set of loyalties.

Director Nick Rowland and screenwriter Joseph Murtagh adapt Colin Barrett’s short story “Calm With Horses” with a tightly-wound sense of tension and brutality that propels a fascinating curiosity about the lasting effects of violence on the ones dishing it out.

While recalling films from the classic (On the Watefront) to the underseen (The Drop), Rowland’s feature debut carves out its own rural identity thanks to an instinct for detail (watching two Irish gangsters debate the wisdom of fleeing to Mexico is perfection) and a marvelous cast.

Jarvis makes Arm an endlessly sympathetic brute, providing a needed depth to Arm’s slow awakening about who is and isn’t worth his trust. Much of that trust is given to Paudi’s heir apparent Dympna, an unrepentant manipulator brought to menacing life by Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk), who again shows why you don’t want to miss any film with him in it.

But it’s Arm’s time with Ursula and Jack (Kiljan Moroney) that reminds him of the kind of man he wants to be, one that knows the difference “between loyalty and servitude.”

These moral complexities of a man questioning his sense of the world are what gives The Shadow of Violence its voice, one that speaks most eloquently in the spaces between the bloodshed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlKF1J5XCdI

Substantial Penalties Apply

The Tax Collector

by George Wolf

You may have heard Shia LaBeouf recently got his entire chest tattooed for his role as “Creeper” in The Tax Collector. Uncommon intensity from the gifted LaBeouf is nothing new, but why he would be motivated to do this is one of the many questions plaguing the latest from writer/director David Ayers.

Creeper is the supporting player here, the nattily clad and tightly wound muscle for organized crime boss David (Bobby Soto). Working for the mysterious Wizard (Jimmy Smits), David and Creeper collect “taxes” from each and every gang in L.A.

43 gangs at 30 percent each means David is living well. That is, until old rival Conejo (veteran rapper Jose Conejo Martin) returns with an aim to take over, and kill anyone who thinks that’s a problem. He does voodoo, too, so there’s a wrinkle.

Much of the film’s early going recalls Ayers’s scripts for both Training Day and End of Watch, as we follow David and Creeper on a loosely-connected series of stops, from violent tax collections to family business with David’s wife (Cinthya Carmona) and Uncle (George Lopez).

David’s expressed devotion to his home life sets up the chance of a Michael Corleone-type thread exploring the difficulty of balancing two worlds, but Ayers leaves it dangling for some stylish but empty brutality in a gang war.

Soto (from 2011’s wonderful A Better Life) and LaBeouf form an impressive duo, but they are continually let down by the script’s generic macho posturing (“We killing anybody today, homie?” “Shit’s getting real”) and over-the-top ambitions to “wash away our sins” by killing a boatload of people.

And as you might guess, LaBeouf playing a Latino gangster is troublesome. Though Ayers has pushed back by saying the character is one who has absorbed the world around him (a claim somewhat bolstered by Ayers’s own background), Creeper never gets the development needed to make LaBeouf’s committed performance land as much more than – at best – intense appropriation.

By the film’s final showdown, the biggest question here concerns the point of it all. It had to be more than that tattoo, or just standard revenge fare as deeply felt as a video game commercial.

But despite the slick camerawork from cinematographer Salvatore Totino, here we are. There are possibilities strewn about The Tax Collector that might have gelled into a robbers bookend for the compelling cops in Ayers’s End of Watch.

But like pesky overdue notices, ignore those possibilities too long and there’s a great big mess on your hands. Or on your screen.

Rumble in the Jungle

The Gentlemen

by George Wolf

If nothing else, Guy Ritchie and his Gentlemen are not lacking in self-confidence. This is a film, and a filmmaker, anxious to prove the old guys can still cut it, and that any young upstart who thinks otherwise has a painful lesson coming.

Ritchie returns to the testosterone-laden, subtitle-needin’ bloody British gangster comedy terrain of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – the early films that still define him – for a stylish ride through a violent jungle with a man who’s not sure he still wants to be King.

Matthew McConaughey is Mickey Pearson, an American Rhodes Scholar who put his brains to work in the drug trade, utilizing a string of expansive British estates to build an underground network that controls the supply of “bush” aka “supercheese” aka weed.

But now it seems he’s ready for a quiet life of leisure with wife Roz (Michelle Dockery), and offers to sell his entire operation to brilliant criminal nerd Matthew (Jeremy Strong) for a sizable sum.

As Matthew is mulling, Roz smells “fuckery afoot,” and she smells wisely.

There’s plenty, and a PI named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) thinks he has it all figured out, so much so that he visits Ray (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s number two, with an offer to save Mickey’s hide…in exchange for a hefty fee.

Ya follow? There’s plenty more, and it’s all spelled out via the screenplay Fletcher has conveniently written. As Fletcher joyously outlines the plot to Ray (and us) over scotches and steaks, Ritchie uses the device to play with possible threads, backtrack, and start again.

The Gentlemen is not just meta. As the double crosses and corpses mount, it becomes shamelessly meta, a sometimes engaging, other times tiresome romp buoyed by slick visual style and committed performances (especially Grant and Hunnam), but marred by self-satisfaction and stale humor that might have been less tone deaf a decade ago.

You get the feeling that after a marriage to Madonna and some big Hollywood franchise films (Sherlock Homes, Aladdin), Ritchie is out to prove he hasn’t gone soft with a little raucous, chest-beating fun.

But while The Gentlemen does show Ritchie’s way with a camera can still be impressive, its best parts only add up to a fraction of their promise.

Blue Wave

21 Bridges

by George Wolf

Okay, huddle up.

Sometimes, your team comes in the underdog. They run the same old plays we’ve seen so many times, it’s not hard to figure out the game plan. But stack that team with enough talent, and it just might succeed anyway.

Hut 21, hut 21…Bridges!

That’s a cliched analogy, perfect for a cliched film. 21 Bridges lives in a familiar world of drug deals gone bad, hero cops who might be crooked, damaged cops who might be heroes, ticking clocks and killers on the run.

Chadwick Boseman stars as Andre Davis, a NYC detective with “cop in his DNA” since his father was gunned down on duty years ago. Andre has a reputation for being quick with the trigger, which is why Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) is happy to see him at a bloody Brooklyn crime scene.

Eight of McKenna’s cops are dead, after surprising two drug runners (Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch) during a botched cocaine robbery. McKenna is confident Andre will enforce their right to remain dead, but the Mayor’s (“he eats pizza with a fork!” – nice) flunkies make it clear hizzoner wants the perps alive for a campaign-friendly show trial.

But first, they have to find the two cop killers. Forced to accept help from narcotics officer Frankie (“fight me or use me”) Burns (Sienna Miller), Andre is granted a five hour window to shut down every possible avenue out of Manhattan, flood the island with blue, and get his men.

Director Brian Kirk, a TV vet helming his second feature, has clearly seen a crime thriller or two. The aerial shots of the city and shaky cam pursuits are standard moves, but Kirk manages to add his own layers of grit and intensity without ever letting the pace bog down.

One half of the writing team, Matthew Michael Carnahan, has some impressive credits, and about half the time, it shows. But even when the dialogue reeks of recycled cop drama, the talent of this cast manages to put a shine on it.

Simmons adds his usual mastery to a role that could have easily been one-note, and Miller again proves how good she is at morphing into completely different looks and personalities.

But this is Boseman’s film to carry, a nice break from his run of biopics and superheroics. The film’s success at exploring the paradoxes of a life in law enforcement is due mainly to Boseman. He finds a mix of outrage and conscience for Andre that feels true, often when the story around him doesn’t quite keep up.

There’s not much freshness to be found in 21 Bridges, just the visceral satisfaction and forgettable fun of talent winning out.

No-tell Motel

Bad Times at the El Royale

by George Wolf

A priest and a vacuum salesman walk into a bar…

Well, one may not be a priest, the other might not be a salesman and the bar is really part of a nearly abandoned motel, but the point is all hell breaks loose in writer/director Drew Goddard’s stylish thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale.

Lake’s Tahoe’s El Royale sits straddling the Nevada/California border in the late 1960s. Before the East side lost its gambling license, the El Royale had been a hot spot and Rat Pack hangout, but lately bellboy/desk clerk and bartender Miles (Lewis Pullman) is pretty lonely.

Then the priest (Jeff Bridges), the salesman (Jon Hamm) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in, followed by a hippie (Dakota Johnson) who’s got an F-you attitude and someone in her trunk (Cailee Spaeney). Their respective reasons for stopping at the El Royale are separate and shady, but as the characters reveal dark pasts and true intentions, the quiet hotel quickly becomes a battleground for survival.

Goddard’s follow-up to 2012’s ingenious The Cabin in the Woods is anchored with the same inventive zest, and built with time-jumping back stories and placards that bring Tarentino to mind. And while El Royale can’t completely deliver on its promise, it offers a gorgeous blast of color, sound and plot twists that are pretty fun to watch unravel.

The entire ensemble is splendid, each digging into their characters with a relish that only elevates the impact when our feelings about them change, and change again. Who’s a villain? Who’s a patsy? Who’s being framed and who’s just looking for redemption? Though Goddard’s pace gets bogged down at times, his visual style and careful placement of 60s pop hits make sure chasing those answers is always a retro hoot.

The film’s biggest disappointment stems from the arrival of the sinister Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a violent charmer who’s come to settle a score with someone in the El Royale’s guestbook. As past histories and current events collide, the film reveals a late-stage moralistic vein as hopes for a type of Cabin in the Woods-style showstopping finale slowly fade away.

Those final fifteen minutes are fine for any typical noir crime thriller, but not quite worthy of El Royale‘s previous deliciously indulgent two hours.





Checking In?

Hotel Artemis

by Hope Madden

In a world where the U.S. government stops supplying bottled water to Flint, Michigan residents while international asshats Nestle are allowed to increase their pumping of clean water from just 100 miles away…

Well, that may not have been the inspiration for Hotel Artemis—the inspiration was probably that cool hotel in John Wick—but it is the kind of social disaster that will lead to the Mad-Max-like rebellion that backdrops writer/director Drew Pearce’s crime thriller.

Los Angeles, 2028, and the bloodiest riots the city has ever known have broken out over the privatization of water. With the police very, very busy, it’s a perfect time for a bank heist. But timing isn’t everything—skill helps—and soon a trio of wounded nogoodnicks are headed to the one place they can safely receive emergency care: the exclusive, subscription-based, criminal-only hospital, Hotel Artemis.

It may have a staff of only two—the nurse (Jodie Foster) and the orderly (Dave Bautista)—but it is chock full of high tech medical equipment, old-school security and strict rules. It may also be the best place to ride out these riots. Unless the tensions inside the hotel reach the same height as those outside.

It’s an intriguing premise, one rife with tense and bloody opportunity. A collection of bad people is trapped in an enclosed, retro-seedy space hoping to survive the storm.

If the story intrigues, the cast convinces. Jodie Foster nails the wearied, accepting, down-to-business Nurse. Though the dialog throughout is not as savvy as Pearce thinks it is, Foster delivers it beautifully and her physical mannerisms are even more convincing.

Bautista charms as her tender strongarm. Sterling K. Brown does no wrong ever, here again radiating an intensity that mingles sadness, obligation and moral authority.

Luckily for the entire ensemble, Pearce is more invested in character development than action. He creates a moody tension inside the walls, exacerbated by the explosion of rage and violence outside.

All of which hits fever pitch when LA crime boss the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum as Jeff Goldblum) shows up wanting to break the rules.

Pearce and his top-to-bottom impressive cast deserve credit for sidestepping expectations and instead crafting a contained, absurd-yet-believable drama. Things get away from the filmmaker when he tries to complicate the plot with backstory, and there are two minor side plots that serve as little more than a distraction.

It’s also an awful lot of tension-building with little in the way of a final release. But Pearce and team have done something remarkable in the summer months: delivered a fresh, imaginative, original film.