Of the major movies released this past weekend, only one ended up with that dreaded splat on Rotten Tomatoes, and even then, just barely, at 59%. So before I take a look at the critical darlings of the weekend, I figured I’d give a little bit of attention to Hotel Artemis, an ambitious siege thriller that shows potential, but couldn’t quite figure out what it wanted to be.
Written and directed by Drew Pearce (his directorial debut, after co-writing Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), the film blends together a lot of elements from previously successful and acclaimed action thrillers and horror films, and altogether it manages to avoid looking like everything was thrown against the wall. The film lacks clarity and focus at points, particularly in tone, but there are still elements to recommend.
Jodie Foster plays the Nurse and administrator at a hotel/hospital for criminals in downtown Los Angeles. Literally, the titular hotel is right in front of the U.S. Bank Tower. In the dystopian future of 10 years from now, the City of Angels is erupting in riots once again, not for something fickle like racist police officers beating a black man within an inch of his life, but instead something more realistic, like the water supply being privatized and the wealthy elite hoarding it all for themselves.
That booming sound you just heard was Professor Frink’s sarcasm detector exploding. This is one of the key issues here for Mr. Pearce. A movie about the wealthy hoarding water and the masses rising up to both fight for all and fight each other for the precious resource is a compelling idea for a story. In fact, I really liked it the first time I saw it, when it was called Mad Max (let’s say Fury Road here for the sake of argument). There are these little bits here and there that recall much better source material, and I can’t tell if Pearce is homaging or straight ripping off. Sadly, it doesn’t really matter, as the water riots are only a background menace, a quasi ticking clock for the plot rather than a legitimate story thread that needs to be resolved, so it’s just left hovering on the periphery.
Foster’s character (called Mrs. Thomas or “Jean” at different points, but otherwise everyone operates on code names) runs the Artemis (so named, I assume, because it’s run by a lady, it’s nighttime with the moon out, and the crooks are being hunted) as a one-stop shop for fixing up criminals who can afford a membership. Lit like a David Fincher film (I got shades of Fight Club‘s Paper Street Soap Company at times), the place is in a shabby state of disrepair, but still she runs a tight ship. The savvy crook can get bullet wounds repaired, 3D-printed clones of damaged organs, and even advanced surgery thanks to near-future technology (a laser scalpel plays a somewhat prominent role).
Also like Fight Club, the “Hotel” has rules. We never know what they are, per se, but they’re hinted at, in case you miss the half-second shot of them posted on the wall in the opening montage, or miss Foster’s tossed off line at the end. Essentially, the place operates like a rundown version of John Wick‘s Continental Hotels. Criminals can use the place, but not conduct business, especially killing/injuring other patients, nor can they have weapons inside. Only those with a surgically-implanted membership ID can gain entrance, and everyone has a code name based on the geographical theme room they’re assigned.
The clientele are a fun assortment of the underworld. Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry play brothers who require the hotel’s services after a botched robbery that sees Henry severely injured. They are assigned the “Honolulu” room, so Henry gets that name, while Brown is known as Waikiki. Already there are Charlie Day, a shit-talking, misogynistic arms dealer known as Acapulco, as well as Kingsman‘s Sofia Boutella as French assassin, Nice. She has some fantastic action set pieces, and is quickly becoming my favorite action star/femme fatale. Helping Foster run the place is her “orderly,” Everest, played by Dave Bautista.
Over the course of the film, Foster has to juggle multiple emergencies. She has to keep Acapulco and Nice from killing each other (Nice also has romantic history with Waikiki), keep Honolulu alive, save a cop (Jenny Slate) who just happens to be her late son’s best friend from childhood, and prepare for the incoming of the mob boss who essentially owns the city, Jeff Goldblum (it’s like his entire late resurgence has been one long in-joke about how he’s the least intimidating person in Hollywood, and I love him for it). She has to do all this while the rioters outside become a deus ex machina, causing enough trouble to kill the power in the hotel whenever it’s convenient for Pearce’s script.
Now, from a plot perspective, that script is almost incoherent. There are so many loose ends and plot threads that are introduced that it’s a wonder any of them get resolved, much less satisfactorily. Nice and Waikiki used to work together? Okay sure. Will their history be anything but hints and innuendo? Nope. Jenny Slate is a cop, and cops aren’t allowed in the hotel. Will there be any consequences? Nope. Honolulu and Waikiki arrived with another accomplice who is thrown out with a bullet wound in his neck because he doesn’t have a membership to the hotel. Does he come back and do anything? Nope. Jodie Foster has a record player, as well as a tablet computer that plays classic rock for her. Does she ever change the record? Nope, but she can still change the music in her headphones and computer linked to said record player!
Much of the first act is table-setting, and only a few of those places end up with a full meal. It’s not terrible to leave a few things unresolved (like a silhouette flashing across the screen during the credits to clue you in to one character’s fate), but to leave so much unanswered only leaves the audience shaking its collective head trying to catch up.
Once Goldblum arrives (he’s known as “The Wolf King of L.A.,” which even the other characters admit is an objectively stupid name), the film shifts its tone one final time to becoming almost a survival horror story. Goldblum’s hot headed son (Zachary Quinto, playing very hard against type in a seeming attempt to do a modern take on Sonny Corleone) and his entire gang are left on the other side of the gate, in a makeshift hallway, because another one of the nebulous “rules” of the house is that only patients and staff come through the gates. So he’s left steaming, and wanting to prove himself, while Nice is in the process of breaking the rules herself, as she’s accepted a contract to take the Wolf King out.
What began as a silly noir thriller with hints at inspiration then turns into a survival game, referencing everything from Assault on Precinct 13 to The Purge. Everyone in the hotel is under siege, and the body count will rise. By that point the plot tone has shaken so much that everything looks more silly than exciting, save for Boutella kicking her requisite amount of ass.
Now, as far as dialogue, the script is pretty okay. There are plenty of witty exchanges, as well as several characters acting as audience surrogate to call attention to the absurdity of the proceedings. Bautista gets the lion’s share of this comic relief, particularly when Jenny Slate’s cop is in the building. More than a few times he comments on how he doesn’t want to know anything about her, and that none of this makes sense. To pre-quote a famous YouTuber, “Everest would be excellent at CinemaSins.”
Still, as I said, there are some things to recommend. Foster and Brown turn in fine performances, and again, the dialogue is fairly punchy. Pearce also knows how to visualize a fight sequence, and there’s some genuine pathos established between Honolulu and Waikiki, not that their fate is any less predictable.
So is the 59% rating appropriate? Pretty much. You shouldn’t spend your money on this now, but it’ll be nice for a night in when it’s out on DVD or HBO or something. As a first feature, this is a good effort from Drew Pearce, and shows potential for him down the road. I’m excited to see what he’s got up his sleeve next. I just wish he’d spent a little bit more time making sure this one was a complete thought.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What non-traditional star would you like to see in an action film? Does Sofia Boutella fighting in a red dress give you wowsers in your trousers? Let me know (except for that last bit – I don’t want to know)!