Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Self-defense: HOMEFRONT

If there’s one thing Breaking Bad taught us, it is to avoid injuring the pride of anyone involved in the meth business. But Jason Statham isn’t too worried about doing so in Homefront, especially when the meth-heads he’s dealing with are a skeletal Kate Bosworth and her brother, the local dealer named Gator who is played with satisfied teeth-gnashing and deep fried accent by the omnipresent James Franco. Too bad for all involved that, after Statham’s daughter (Izabela Vidovic) defends herself from Bosworth’s bully son on the playground by beating him up, the meth people won’t let the insult stand. Bosworth gets her brother to menace Statham, who is new to their small town in the backwaters of Louisiana. This leads to all manner of complications, including the revelation of Statham’s character’s undercover D.E.A. past, which is all the incentive Franco needs to call in the big guns. As it must, this means Statham is going to have to spring into action and punch people in creative and effective ways. Once he stabs a bad guy’s arm to a post and smashes a mason jar on the back of the guy’s head. Hey, you use what’s around you.

Statham has become one of our most reliable action stars, eking out an appealing B-movie career for himself. He’s now the kind of guy with tremendous affection from his core audience, who gets applause and attention simply for turning up. Even so, he’s not coasting. He’s hard at work being compelling. In a cameo in a big movie earlier this year he single-handedly made for the most exciting mid-credits teaser in a long time (and maybe ever). Something about his stubble-covered dome and virtuosic working of his smirk – from deadly serious all the way to happily serious – makes him an aerodynamic charmer, ready to leap into any conflict if it means saving himself, his mission, or those he cares about. He’s always a man with a code, and when that code breaks, duck. Unlike overly muscled action stars of the past, he’s lean and compact, like an average fit guy who can knock you senseless in no time at all.

Homefront isn’t one of his better efforts, but it’s often tense and gets the job done. The script, adapted from a book by Chuck Logan, is written by Sylvester Stallone. Yes, that Sylvester Stallone. He’s a man capable of churning out an effective actioner, even if he’s rarely cast as an everyman. Here he writes a part for his Expendables pal Statham that’s grounded in a sense of reluctant action. Here’s a guy retired from the force after a drug bust turned violent. He is called to punch, stab, scheme, and shoot his way to safety in order to keep a protected environment for his little daughter. Statham’s a guy who can do these things, but would rather not. They just leave him no choice. He’s personally insulted and assaulted, his tired slashed and cat kidnapped. That’s one thing. But threaten the safety of his daughter and watch out! It’s a clear cheap ploy for audience identification – the child-in-danger thing works every time, no matter how earned or unearned it is.

It raises the red meat knee-jerk vengeance quite well in a movie that’s frontloaded with exposition. If Stallone’s script tells you once it tells you three or four times every pertinent bit of plot information. Gator is dangerous. The town finds Statham suspicious. The sheriff (Clancy Brown) seems awfully buddy buddy with the meth operation. But for all this repetition, it’s strange to see characters drop in out of nowhere, like a gang of thugs who snarl at Statham on two separate occasions before he beats them all up, both times. Who are they? Who do they work for? Why are they angry? Where do they end up? Beats me. Same goes for the daughter’s teacher (Rachel Lefevre) who has a promising subplot dropped entirely after a couple of scenes. Other characters, like a welcome Winona Ryder who provides Franco access to a hitman, are nicely detailed, but ultimately exist to bumble the plot towards a conclusion.

It all builds to the shoot-‘em-up climax it continually foreshadows. Along the way, director Gary Fleder, who ten to fifteen years ago was a go-to guy for James Patterson and John Grisham adaptations or imitations, finds merely competent ways to make this interesting. It’s a watchable, straightforward and grungy B-movie all the way down the line, mostly worth it for Statham’s charmingly stoic loving father and the few passably exciting action beats, although there are fewer than you’d expect or like. You want to be on Statham’s side, not just for the plot’s sake, but for the sake of his persona. You just know that no matter the outcome, no matter the obstacle, even if said obstacle’s a middling thriller, Statham’s going to be okay. 

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