Take The Continental idea from John Wick. Turn it into an exclusive, strict rules-driven ER for criminals instead of an exclusive, rule-driven hotel for assassins. Add Jodie Foster and Dave Bautista as the NURSE and ORDERLY in charge. Project it decades into the future in a war-torn LA besieged by constant riots. Step back and watch what happens one very long night when all the rules are broken.
That’s the hook for Hotel Artemis, Drew Pearce’s new star-studded B-movie. It all sounds promising. So, why does the actual film feel so neutered? Why is it such a missed opportunity, the type of film that will probably drive screenwriting teachers crazy?
Writer-director Drew Pearce first came to the Hotel Artemis idea – a woman in her 60s runs a secret ER for criminals out of an art-deco hotel – quite simply: “People often say write what you know, and in this movie my starting point was write what you want to see.” That’s what he told SlashFilm, and it’s almost identical to similar quotes from Leigh Whannell on the Upgrade promotional tour. These are guys who grew up on John Carpenter and James Cameron in the 80s, and that’s who they want to emulate. The difference is Whannell cut his teeth in the micro-budget horror arena while Pearce made his name on blockbusters, co-writing the Iron Man 3 and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation screenplays.
That’s probably why Upgrade [read my review],with its melting pot of 80s influences and Her-meets-Taken ultra-violent revenge tale feels so daring and boundary-pushing whereas Artemis feels comparatively safer. Upgrade is a hard-R; Artemis would almost be PG-13 if not for its language.
That alone shouldn’t discredit Artemis, but it does give the film an odd sense that Pearce is holding back. After all, how is it that in this hotel for criminals everyone other than Charlie Day is granted an unmistakable nobility? Why are there so few action scenes? Why do we never really believe any of the characters are in actual danger?
On the last part, it comes down to story construction. The set-up for the film is, as the script spells out in a trailer-ready moment, “Busy night at the Hotel Artemis.” Jodie Foster’s Nurse only has so many rooms, and on this night she’s already taken in a female gunshot victim (Sofia Boutella) and rich asshole who had half his face torn off (Charlie Day), both of whom she fixes up using nanites (remember, this is set in the future). Before the night is over, she will also treat a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Sterling K. Brown, Brian Tyree Henry), a cop with a connection to her past (Jenny Slate), and the city’s crime lord, dubbed The Wolf King, who actually bankrolls her entire operation (Jeff Goldblum, as Goldblumy as ever).
The Wolf King’s looming arrival is meant to be the primary source of tension. The Nurse operates the place on a first come, first serve basis. So, she has a rule against holding beds open for anyone, which is why she refuses the Wolf King’s son (Zachary Quinto) when he demands his father be guaranteed service even though they’re an hour away. However, she also has rules against treating cops, which she breaks for personal reasons. Moreover, unbeknownst to her Brown and his brother unwittingly stole something the Wolf King might want back.
Clearly, everything revolves around the Wolf King, yet once he arrives in his wounded state you realize he’s largely oblivious to everything. Turns out, no one’s actually looking for the cop or the brothers. There is almost no real tension, and Quinto, as a loud-mouthed, aggressive type, is so consistently undercut by those around him it’s hard to take him seriously as a threat either.
Moreover, almost no one in the cast seems willing to go to a truly dark place. For example, Brown, in a justified rage, points a gun at a woman at one point and you never for one second believe he’ll shoot her because, well, he’s Sterling K. Brown.
Yet, while I clearly wanted more from Hotel Artemis I still had a lot of fun with it. The premise is enjoyably wonky. The set design combining 1920s art-deco with futuristic sci-fi is fantastic and a joy to look at. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, of Oldboy fame, works his visual magic. Jodie Foster completely commits to the material, confidently defiant in the face of monsters, and coping with her own trauma, which the film probably overplays at the end. Bautista earns laughs as a Drax-like orderly. Sofia Boutella gets a hallway fight sequence that puts Daredevil to shame and would certainly make The Raid people proud. And, frankly, I will watch Sterling K. Brown in pretty much anything at this point.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hotel Artemis is a midnight movie you can take your mom to if she loves Sterling K. Brown on This Is Us. Sure, Artemis has plenty of foul language which might give her pause, and there is a death scene or two which is plenty violent. However, for the most part, Artemis takes its perfectly campy premise and eclectic cast and comes up with something which feels slightly neutered. It could have been a classic. Instead, it’s merely watchable.
- People Vs. OJ connection: Sterling K. Brown and Kenneth Choi are both in this. In fact, they rob a bank together in the first scene. Christopher Darden and Judge Ito, partners in crime at last.
- Elsewhere in the SlashFilm interview, Pearce admits much of the film story’s is subconsciously autobiographical. The Nurse is a reflection of his own schoolteacher mother who was recently forced into retirement. Brown’s struggle to escape the criminal life reflects Pearce’s own struggles to rise from a working-class family and pursue a career in film. That probably explains why those two characters are given the most dramatic weight.
- I saw Paul Schrader’s excellent First Reformed immediately prior to Hotel Artemis, which is an odd double billing, I’ll admit. However, it likely made me enjoy Artemis just a little more because after Reformed‘s intense, incredibly challenging essay on faith in 2018 I was happy to have a B-movie chaser.