Hotel Artemis (2018)

Directed by Drew Pearce

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A gaggle of criminals converge on the infamous Hotel Artemis one night during a 2028 Los Angeles riot.  They are all connected, of course, in ways that will necessitate a series of crimes and punishments, delivering the promised blood bath from which no one is safe.  At least, that’s the premise.  The Hotel Artemis is one of those places that only exist (as far as I know) in sci-fi movies like this one.  You see it too in John Wick, with a secret establishment hiding in plain sight where criminals pay a membership fee like you do at 24 Hour Fitness.  Here they all depend on the Artemis to fix bullet wounds with no questions asked.

The hotel is run by “The Nurse” (Jodie Foster) and owned by “The Wolf King,” a feared crime boss who will of course show up about halfway into the film.  No matter how late his arrival, it will be the de facto inciting incident, and his death will set off a chain reaction like the first shot in a Mexican standoff.

The first half of the story introduces us to characters played (with apparent glee) by Sterling K. Brown, Bryan Tyree Henry, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day and Zachary Quinto.  Two of them are brothers who act as our tour guides into the Artemis following a botched burglary.  Soon they learn that they’ve unwittingly stolen from the Wolf King who is soon on his way along with a caravan of yes men led by his son with a chip on his shoulder.

There is a lot of Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight here.  Basically it’s Tarantino in theory, with a slow build up featuring unique, hardened, fast-talking criminals and the withering bonds between them.  Two of them used to be lovers, another just rubs people the wrong way, etc.  The groundwork is laid for an explosive, exciting payoff.

Except it’s not all that exciting and certainly not that surprising.  People are picked off in fairly nondescript ways, and while there’s nothing wrong with any of it, the movie just feels a bit underwhelming.  Hotel Artemis establishes a unique, vibrant, dark and brooding world only to waste it on passable action and replaceable characters.

The performances are nice, and the gathered talent is impressive, but something about these characters just never feels alive.  They are instead a combination of tropes and pre-existing characters, like an algorithm used to plop out zany, unpredictable or suave characters.

The intended beating heart in this movie is The Nurse.  She hasn’t left the building in years, and throughout the movie we are teased with images of a young boy who we learn (but probably already figured) was her son.  His death compelled her into a life of service, but later revelations challenge what she believes about her son and herself.

Again, it’s all nice on paper, but it just didn’t seem to work.  Maybe it’s that the world is so zany and unique already that the characters need to be a little more grounded in order to tie it all together.  The Nurse, of course, is humanized, but that’s not until the end of the film.  For most of the runtime she too is a bit of an absurd character, something like Lisa Simpson as a recovering speed addict.

Along with the other characters she is quirky and mysterious, and for just about the entire cast it seems we’re not meant to identify, empathize with or root for them but rather come up with theories that explain their purposefully vague backstories.  It’s like a game of Clue, with us investigating their motivations and, along with that, where they line up on a moral compass.

If all we’re meant to do is ask such questions however, it means we’re treating these characters like specimens under a microscope and as a result don’t have the time or opportunity to relate to them on a more human level.  In the end it’s clear we’re meant to feel for The Nurse, but her story reeks of the same ‘dead child’ backstory that is used far too often as a shortcut for an audience to root for a protagonist.

I suppose one thing that might be missing is a better understanding of the stakes.  We’re told what and who to fear, but we never see it.  We know the Wolf King is a big bad, but when he eventually shows up (with surprise casting) the joke outweighs the dramatic effect, and he is suddenly not the imposing figure he’s meant to be.  Similarly we learn early on that Nice (Boutella) is there to murder someone, but we don’t know who, and, to a lesser extent, we don’t know why.

These set ups don’t inspire the amount of tension they’re meant to invoke, and I think for the effect to work we need to see The Wolf King in action or watch Nice do her thing.  Most of the action (and world building) happens offscreen.  It’s like if you hear there’s a dust storm approaching, but you’ve never seen a dust storm before.

Up Next: Papillon (2017), High Fidelity (2000), Killing Gunther (2017)

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