(US - 2020)
TRAUMA CENTER and SURVIVE THE NIGHT, Willis once again does the bare minimum in HARD KILL, spending most of his screen time alone in a safe room, until his ubiquitous double sneaks out, gets caught, then Willis spends the rest of the film zip-tied to a chair, grimacing at either the sounds of a shootout or wondering exactly how he--Willis, not the character--ended up here. To call the plot threadbare would be overselling it, but Willis is Dayton Chalmers, the CEO of the tech behemoth Chapterhouse. His daughter Dr. Ava Chalmers (Lala Kent) has created a potentially dangerous AI program known as "Project 725," which has vaguely-defined destructive powers if it ends up in the wrong hands. That's exactly what happens when the easily-manipulated Ava falls in with "The Pardoner" (Sergio Rizzuto), an international terrorist who wants to use Project 725 to burn down the global economy. Enter PTSD-stricken Black Ops military contractor Miller (Jesse Metcalfe), who brings along his crew--Dash (Swen Temmel), Sasha (WWE star Natalie Eva Marie), and her brother Harrison (Jon Galanis)--at the suggestion of Chalmer's security chief Fox (Texas Battle), and sets up shop in an abandoned warehouse where The Pardoner is supposed to bring the kidnapped Ava in exchange for Project 725's fail-safe access code. Naturally, it's personal for Miller, who was nearly killed during a past encounter with The Pardoner, exposition conveyed in the most leaden way possible ("He put a bullet in my back...and I still have the scars to prove it").
Even the most generic action movies usually have to work their way up to the climactic showdown at the abandoned warehouse, but HARD KILL--on Blu-ray and DVD four days after bowing at a handful of drive-ins and theaters--spends about 95% of its duration there. That leaves everyone little to do but walk around and yell in between periodic shootouts where The Pardoner's seemingly unlimited supply of faceless, black-helmeted goons run in only to be immediately killed by Miller and his team. HARD KILL is so uninspired that it's the second one of these VOD-era Willis titles--after 2015's EXTRACTION--where he spends most of the movie tied to a chair. And EXTRACTION almost looks like DIE HARD compared to HARD KILL, which is positively Albert Pyun-esque with the way everyone just wanders around the abandoned warehouse to pad the running time, with Eskandari not even remotely interested in conveying the layout or where anyone or anything is in relation to anything else. Willis is visibly bored beyond belief, and he's almost got some competition in the coasting department from Battle, whose character gets shot early and spends the rest of the movie sitting on a table. Kent, Temmel, and Rizzuto appear to be trying to one-up each other to see who can give the worst performance, but I'm calling it for Rizzuto, who gets one of those long bad guy speeches that starts with "You know why they call me 'The Pardoner?'" and proceeds to invoke "The Pardoner's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales. Shot in the Cincinnati area and boasting a ludicrous 31 credited producers, HARD KILL is depressingly bad. It's Seagal bad. There is absolutely nothing here. And worst of all, it's insanely boring, lethargically-paced with no sense of urgency to the proceedings, no suspense given the high stakes, and no effort on the part of the cast to convincingly sell any of it, with Rizzuto about as plausible a feared international terrorist as VANDERPUMP RULES' Kent is as a scientific genius who invents a game-changing AI program. Willis' mumbling sleepwalk of a performance is the least of HARD KILL's problems, and in all seriousness, is he OK? Willis has never been particularly good at hiding his disinterest in a project, but in these last few VOD outings, he's talking slower, he moves gingerly--something seems off in a 1945-1946 Curly Howard way and it's getting noticeable to the point where roasting him really doesn't feel right. (R, 98 mins)
THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY
(UK/US/Italy/Canada - 2020)
MIAMI BLUES. The script is written by Scott B. Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination for adapting his own novel A Simple Plan into a film for Sam Raimi back in 1998, and to that end, THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY is in that same wheelhouse with a seemingly easy, simple act that snowballs into something out of control, but the stakes never quite resonate and the forward momentum is lacking, even when things really start to go south. Some of that might be due to the Merchant-Ivory pacing, some of it to Scott and THE DOUBLE HOUR director Giuseppe Capotondo's many deviations from the novel, which was set in the noir hotbed of Florida, while the more TALENTED MR. RIPLEY-esque film moves to lush areas of Italy. But much of the sense of inertia that permeates the proceedings can be laid on the shoulders of the bland Claes Bang, the Danish star of Ruben Ostlund's wildly overrated THE SQUARE and the extremely divisive Netflix miniseries DRACULA. Purveyors of international art cinema keeps trying to make Bang happen, but beyond his awesome name, there's just not much movie star charisma or screen presence there.
Bang is James Figueras, a pill-popping Milan-based art critic and arrogant bullshit artist who hooks up with American Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) after one of his museum lectures. She accompanies him to an already-planned weekend visit to the Lake Como summer estate of obscenely wealthy art collector Joseph Cassidy (a grinning, reptilian Mick Jagger, in his first acting role since 2002's THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS). Cassidy offers Figueras an exclusive once thought unimaginable: an interview with reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), who's been off the grid for the last 50 years, after all of his work was destroyed in a fire. Debney is living in a cottage on the Cassidy estate, but won't sell or allow anyone to even see his paintings, not even Cassidy, whose offer to Figueras is two-fold: he also wants a Debney for his collection and more or less encourages Figueras to do whatever is necessary to procure it. Smith and Capotondi indulge in some caustic commentary on the general idea of critics as being pompously full of shit at best and utterly immoral at worst, which gives you an idea of the places a corrupt bastard like Figueras is willing to go, especially being prodded by an almost Mephistophelian Cassidy. Jagger is well-cast, while Sutherland (also in Giuseppe Tornatore's somewhat similar Italy-set art forgery drama THE BEST OFFER back in 2014) deploys some inconsistent Southern drawl that's just distracting, and Debicki creates an interesting character that the film doesn't always successfully utilize. All these shortcomings manage to dissipate in a terrific finale that's almost enough to trick you into thinking the rest of the movie was just as good. Even with the void at the center that is Claes Bang, there's still enough to appreciate that it warrants a look, especially for Jagger completists and fans of the promising Debicki (WIDOWS and Christopher Nolan's COVID-19-delayed TENET). Speaking of the pandemic, THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY was yet another coronavirus casualty, its limited release stalled after its second week in March and its April expansion nixed when US theaters were closed. Sony Pictures Classics very quietly relaunched it in early August just a couple of weeks before its Blu-ray/DVD street date. (R, 98 mins)