Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Cinema File #287: "Homefront" Review

Action heroes, and by extension the balls to the wall action movies they’re born to helm, aren’t what they used to be. In an age when all of our favorite superheroes and alien planets as intricately detailed as Pandora can be depicted onscreen with relative ease, movies about regular guys who are really good at punching other guys in the face just don’t seem to pack the same, well, punch anymore. In a way, Jason Statham feels like the last of a dying breed, defiantly resisting the pull of his 80's ancestors to resign himself to Expendables-style self parody (even as he takes a paycheck from them now and again). Most of his starring vehicles to date including his latest Home Front have at least been passably entertaining and technically well made with interesting fight sequences and stunt work, but at the end of the day, the whole enterprise feels more than a little redundant.

Homefront follows Statham as a retired DEA agent just trying to live a normal quiet life with his daughter in a small town, only to be dragged back into his old world of bad guy punching when he runs afoul of a shiftless would-be meth kingpin who decides that a dead narc might be his ticket to the big time. We tend to get a movie like this about once a year, where Jason Statham kicks the ass of (insert cliched bad guy here). Sometimes its terrorists, sometimes garden variety criminals, and this time its meth heads. Typically one would expect that all other things being equal, each film would attempt to escalate the threat posed to its recurring star so as to maintain a level of interest in whether or not he can kick enough ass to win in the end, which makes the set up of Homefront both somewhat deflating, and in a weird way that much more interesting.

It would be easy to deride Homefront for its choice of villain, a dumb, freewheeling meth cooker named Gator played by the eminently non-threatening James Franco, but in context the vast disparity between him and Statham's ex-cop in terms of level of badassery seems to be the whole point, and a welcome twist on the usual formula. Gator doesn't have to be a criminal mastermind to be a threat, he just has to be a guy with nothing to lose. Sure, the scene in the diner designed to be the Heat moment between the two has none of the tension of the Michael Mann film, but while these two adversaries are talking, all Gator needs is one other person willing and amoral enough to go after a small child waiting at home for her father. That's the ever present danger of this movie, not that Statham might be overcome by a superior foe one on one, but that his vulnerability as a father will be exploited as a weakness, and for the most part, it works.

Unfortunately, this is really the only thing the movie has going for it, apart from what you would usually expect from a Jason Statham action romp. There are a few fun tweaks that surprise, in particular a scene where he rigs a meth lab to explode by turning light bulbs into flash bombs, but overall, the slightly more clever than usual set-up still gives way to the same escalating series of hand to hand fight scenes, and nothing really ends up in any way other than what you would reasonably expect. Its the kind of movie you should be able to map out in your head completely after seeing the trailer, because you've no doubt seen it enough times before, and there isn't enough new to justify running through the same beats again. I found the natural unraveling of the villain's plan more engaging than anything our hero was doing even after his daughter was placed in harm's way, and I don't think I was supposed to.

The whole movie almost feels like a comment on the structure of action movies past, where the normal lives of bad ass protagonists are upended by the complex machinations of impossibly sophisticated villains. The conflict of Homefront literally begins in the school yard, where a fight between two children escalates as the parents get involved, one of whom just so happens to be related to a criminal with independent designs on moving up in the drug game. If this weren't written by Sylvester Stallone, someone who knows his way around the tropes of action movies, I might chock this up to coincidence, but I can't help but wonder if he had a greater purpose here that was lost somewhere along the way as something potentially interesting was forced into the mold of Just Another Statham movie. As it stands, its probably just slightly better than most in that category, or at least it feels like it wants to be, even if it never quite manages to evolve beyond its cookie cutter format.

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