Monday 23 July 2018

Three stars: "Hotel Artemis"

Hotel Artemis, an enjoyably offbeam directorial debut from screenwriter Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), rips one specific scene out of any number of old-timey crime movies, balls it up, pitches it ten years into the future, and unfolds an entire picture out of it. The scene is the one where a gangster or some other nogoodnik takes a bullet in the course of their skulduggery and has to be carried by their associates to some backstreet location, where a shady, nervy and/or disgraced medical professional can extract the slug and stitch 'em up without reporting any transgressions to the Feds. Pearce's proposition is that, by the year 2028, the great city of Los Angeles will be in such a woebegone state that an entire institution would have risen up to meet the need for suturing heavies. The facility in question, a badly faded former hotel, is operated by a prematurely greying doctor played by Jodie Foster and known only as The Nurse, who oversees a corridor's worth of state-of-the-art surgical equipment - bought, of course, with dirty money - and a personal archive of turn-of-the-Seventies West Coast rock with which she livens up her scant downtime.

We join this Nurse on the night riots have broken out on the surrounding streets over alterations to the city's water supply, with a bank robber (Sterling K. Brown) hauling a badly wounded compadre through the unrest and into this gaudy sanctuary. There are patients already in situ: a trash-talking arms dealer (Charlie Day) whose recovery from facial injuries is hampered by his desire to make life difficult for everyone, and an assassin (Sofia Boutella) with a bullethole in her arm ("This is America," deadpans the Nurse during surgery. "85% of what I deal with is bulletholes") and, it's revealed, a new target in her sights. The atmosphere becomes yet more febrile with a couple of late arrivals: the mob boss who first opened and funded this facility (Jeff Goldblum), now bleeding himself and expecting the VIP treatment, and - uh-oh - an injured cop (Jenny Slate), whose presence challenges the Nurse's rep as someone who only does good for bad men, and indirectly reminds our heroine of the trauma that led to her shutting herself away in the first place. Tough shift.

At just 94 minutes, this is a notably self-contained endeavour, a clear example of a novice director hitting upon a set-up that allows him to find his feet within carefully defined limits: one location, three acts, one night. Possibly Pearce got the gangster angle from watching The Roaring Twenties on Turner Classic Movies; an additional source of inspiration may have been MGM's 1932 smash Grand Hotel, with its vision of disparate individuals and agendas being sequestered beneath the same roof. This dystopian update is, naturally, far less lavish: Ramsay Avery's production design stretches to a tight maze of mildewed corridors along which characters clash and nasty surprises lurk. Generically, Pearce's film is closer to those one-bad-night episodes of TV's e.r., or a John Wick spin-off set entirely within the confines of the Continental. Still, it's encouraging - especially at the height of the summer silly season - to be presented with a creative who writes because he wants to work in close proximity with actors, and do something driven more by characters than effects. 

Everyone gets a scene or three to add to their showreel. Day is permitted to go several shades heavier than usual; Boutella vamps effectively before the plot requires her to perform her usual asskicking; Brown - thus far best known for TV (American Crime Story, This is Us) - demonstrates he can hold a bigger screen, and the moral centre ground, very capably. It will most likely be remembered as the film that handed Foster, away directing these past few years, her most substantial acting role for a decade: this material would appear unlikely to generate Academy nods, but she skilfully outlines a dedicated professional whose specialty just happens to be dirty work, and Pearce realises he needs her to connect this script's various strands together. It frays a little towards the end - the action's pretty rote - and a few extra narrative and stylistic risks wouldn't have hurt anybody; like 75-80% of modern American movies, it could do with getting out more. Still, at a time when the bulk of our summer releases are overinflated B-movies, it's rather fun to see a crime movie that stakes out its parameters early, before operating smartly and coherently within them.

Hotel Artemis is now showing in cinemas nationwide.  

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