What do you want from a movie? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because I’m suddenly seeing an overwhelming number of films in theaters. Maybe too many. Some nights I walk out and I’m dazed, not from the screen, but just from the stamina of entertainment being drained from me over a period of weeks. I usually have twenty minutes or so to drive home, and I keep using those twenty minutes to ask what I want from a movie.
Or more precisely, I think about what I wanted from the movie I just saw. I understand that wants and needs ebb and flow as genres change, and that the specifics of what you want from a horror film is probably different from what you want from a rom-com. But there’s still a language of cinema with an ur-set of needs, and I’m trying to pare it down for myself.
One absolute tenet of my personal filmic law is that I need to see something new. I need to see a film take a chance on at least some level. Because I’ve reached a point where anything that plays by the numbers I simply cannot remember the next day. And anything that tries a few new things, no matter how poorly executed, I’ll wind up thinking about for weeks.
By this personal standard, Hotel Artemis is my movie of the year.
In the near future, all public works have been privatized, and in the city of Los Angeles the corporation in charge of water has decided to turn off the taps. As you might expect, people don’t super duper love this idea, and pretty soon the streets are filled with rioters clashing with corporate shock troopers. Amidst this maelstrom, three fine gentlemen are attempting to rob a bank. As this is the near future, they’ve got lasers and such for cutting into the vault, but their real target is all the immigrant employees that rich people sent downtown with bags of expensive stuff that needs protecting. It’s a fairly easy caper to convince abused and underpaid employees to turn on their masters, and the successful heist leads to the team blending into the riot. Until one of those classic finicky criminals pulls a gun and everyone gets shot. Team leader Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) has one idea to save their lives: The Hotel Artemis.
One absolute tenet of my personal filmic law is that I need to see something new… By this personal standard, Hotel Artemis is my movie of the year.
At the top of one of downtown LA’s historic hostels lies the separatist escape of Hotel Artemis. It’s a shack for fixing up criminals and assassins which operates under a strict set of rules, most of which revolve around neutral territory and the inability to attack other guests. It’s basically the Continental Hotel from the John Wick films, set in a time period with lasers and microbiotics, and stuck in a location torn from the same Art Deco futurism playbook as Bioshock’s Rapture.
Are you sold on seeing this yet? I feel like you should be sold on seeing this by now.
The cantankerous caregiver who has been running this member’s only facility for decades is The Nurse (Jodie Foster), a broken alcoholic traumatized by the death of her son, who has been riding out life as a nothing-to-lose sassmouth and the patron saint of criminals. Her only staff member is a gigantic walking refrigerator of death named Everest, played to perfection by Dave Bautista. If you thought that Bautista has been stealing the spotlight in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, wait until you see him deliver the same brooding murder comedy here except — wait for it — understated. That’s right. Subtle Bautista. It is truly a thing of beauty.
Sterling K. Brown and his team gain entrance to the hospital, and find themselves stuck in a precarious balancing act between the other guests and their unknown motives. Charlie Day plays a coked up arms dealer whose prickly Lenny Bruce act doesn’t mesh well in the common area when he hits on a famous assassin played by a take-no-prisoners Sofia Boutella. There’s also Zachary Quinto as a mob boss’ son who just wants his dad to love him and Jenny Slate as an injured cop who winds up trapped in a building full of killers.
There’s also Jeff Goldblum. He plays the character of Jeff Goldblum. If you like seeing Goldblum do Goldblum, his role is worth the price of admission.
What transpires is a mix of character piece and apocalyptic destruction with breaks of action sequences that probably have their closest cinematic parallels in the Resident Evil movies. It’s stylized and complicated and throws in just enough to keep things constantly dancing between scales. It could have taken place entirely within the hotel, like a single location film that’s constantly telling you about the world events outside. But instead of going the direction of say, the first Purge film in this respect, Hotel Artemis jumps from the intensely personal to large scale crowd scenes or helicopter crashes, and then back to an argument about the quality of coffee available in the secret assassin hospital.
It recalls the feeling and repartee of an early Quentin Tarantino film. Except that there’s none of the problematic elements and also, you know, no Tarantino. If you were wishing to see the modern evolution of Reservoir Dogs but with three incredible female leads, this is that thing. Weird that you wished for that, though. Always wish for more wishes.
First-time director Drew Pearce (who is better known for having written Iron Man 3 with Shane Black) shows off a keen eye behind the camera and a better sense of pacing than a first-time director should have. The mystery could be a bit better realized, as the film spends an hour with various characters exchanging glances and dialogue that’s the equivalent of “I think you’re maybe sorta up to something but I can’t put my finger on what.” But it’s done with such joy and forward momentum that this feel like nit-picking. Pearce also gives us a real gift of just turning Sterling K. Brown loose to have the most fun I’ve ever seen him have performing.
Drew Pearce shows off a keen eye behind the camera and a better sense of pacing than a first-time director should have.
But the greatest delight is getting to watch Jodie Foster absolutely obliterate her character by giving 110%. The Nurse is a conflicted maternal semi-deity whose righteousness is only paralleled by her flaws. You can also tell that director Pearce is a huge fan of his star, as the film makes small nods to the entire history of her acting career; culminating in a sequence knowingly designed to mimic yet reverse the night vision sequence in Silence of the Lambs. Foster is a national treasure and calling this film an excellent John Wick 3 is diminishing to the potential (and my personal desire) to see Foster turn this into her big long-running action-thriller franchise.
Hotel Artemis is in theaters up against Upgrade. They’re both near future assassin tales drenched in style and featuring clever comedic twists while also operating on near-nothing budgets. I thoroughly recommend both, but Hotel Artemis is probably the one meant for the long run while Upgrade while just make you giggle through bloodlust. Whatever you choose to watch in theaters this week, though, it seems as if you’d have a hard time making the wrong choice.