By Preston Wilder
Say you’re Drew Pearce, a 40-something Hollywood insider. You’re known as a writer, having co-scripted Iron Man 3 – but you want to direct, so you whip up a suitable property. Dystopian sci-fi is always good, even when your script isn’t actually sci-fi. You need something set entirely (or almost entirely) in one location, to keep down costs. The cast isn’t going to be a problem; as already mentioned, you’re known in the industry – so not only can you snag a double Oscar winner for the lead role, you also get a cool supporting cast with the likes of Jeff Goldblum and Charlie Day (even indie-pop hero Father John Misty, in a walk-on role). Add some modish violence, and voilà: Hotel Artemis is born.
The important thing to note about this minor, modestly satisfying action thriller is that it’s a calling card; it’s not designed to set the world on fire, merely to provide a solid debut for a newbie director after a handful of shorts and music videos. For a while, it looks like transcending its remit; it feels like it could be a gem, with assorted plot strands coalescing in a vivid, neon-spattered setting. Then it goes flat in the final stretch and becomes merely watchable, but that’s okay. It was always the idea anyway.
This is basically the Continental Hotel from John Wick with a side of urban chaos: a members-only sanctuary for criminals in a riot-torn LA of the future, its purpose being not to provide elegant service and R&R, like the Continental, but to suture wounds and replace damaged organs with 3D-printed new ones. Jodie Foster is The Nurse, who’s almost single-handedly run the place for 22 years (her only assistant is Everest, played by burly Dave Bautista); she’s cynical and apparently agoraphobic, with a line in side-of-the-mouth wisecracks – “That’s not ice-cream he’s been shooting in there!” – that doesn’t really play to Foster’s strengths. Needless to say, her brittle exterior masks a deep personal pain. That photo of a little boy on the mantelpiece isn’t just decor, as you’ll know if you’ve seen any films before this one.
Hotel Artemis is obviously a lark, lots of noir-inflected posturing and a clutch of cartoonish characters. Sofia Boutella is a French assassin, Day does his usual nasal dork as an obnoxious arms dealer (“Laugh it up, Frenchy!” he fumes, stung by her mockery); Sterling K. Brown does what he can with the dullest role, a sympathetic robber trying to help his hot-headed brother – he’s a brother, Nurse is a ‘sister’; discuss! – while the great Goldblum seems a tad miscast as a psycho gangster known as the Wolf King. Outside, the world is going to hell, with the underclass deprived of clean water and a privately-owned police force claiming a legal right to open fire on protesters; inside, it’s all retro lampshades and sour yellow light, and Nurse relating an only-in-the-movies story about a bad beagle. For most viewers, Hotel Artemis is a fun little trifle best watched on TV in about six months. For Drew Pearce, it’s mission accomplished.
And what of Sicario: Day of the Soldado? What exactly was the point behind this crushingly empty sort-of sequel to a potent – but problematic – original? The first Sicario was a savage tale of drug-cartel mayhem distinguished by two things: (a) the conflict between idealistic FBI agent Emily Blunt and the brutal realpolitik practised by soldiers Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, and (b) the visual flair of director Denis Villeneuve and DP Roger Deakins, who’ve since made the Oscar-winning Blade Runner 2049.
Neither of these appears in Soldado, which sorely lacks Villeneuve, Deakins, Blunt and indeed any Blunt equivalent, the absence of clear moral conflict giving free rein to the first film’s incipient machismo. “Your bombs empower us to send something truly terrifying: the full weight of the United States military!” declares the Secretary of Defence to terrorists everywhere – and the film seems un-ironically in awe of the state’s fearsome tech capabilities, regardless of how they’re being used (or abused). All sides are equally bad here; the tone is a flip, weary nihilism – which is fine, except that the film does little to earn that nihilism.
Our heroes’ plan – to kidnap the daughter of a drug kingpin, hoping his rivals get blamed – makes no sense (surely the girl is going to talk after being returned to her daddy, no?). Very little convinces in general. Even the good scenes – like a tense negotiation on a bus – tend to collapse into random violence. A sub-plot about a teenage boy being seduced by the cartels is embarrassingly obvious. Brolin and del Toro aren’t really a team anymore. A stray reference to the US President fearing impeachment due to having ordered the killing of Mexican cops is almost funny (frankly, that would be the least of his problems). “‘Dirty’ is exactly why you’re here,” Brolin is told – but why is he here, and what’s the story behind this soulless new chapter? Hotel Artemis isn’t much but it’s easy to see why it was made, and it justifies its investment. What’s Soldado’s excuse?
Hotel Artemis **
DIRECTED BY Drew Pearce
STARRING Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella
US/UK 2018 94 mins
Sicario: Day of the Soldado *
DIRECTED BY Stefano Sollima
STARRING Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Catherine Keener
Includes some dialogue in Spanish
US 2018 122 mins