A successful Jason Statham film requires a limited amount of cinematic resources: a stunt budget, a cartoon villain, a script with peppered with goons to punch in the face, and a Jason Statham. Hire a director who has streamed at least three Statham action movies off Netflix to cobble together a thin plot and — boom! — entertainment.
Perhaps because Oscar-nominated screenwriter/painter Sylvester Stallone took on writing duties, Statham's latest film, 'Homefront,' dares to opt out of the formula in favor of a character-driven crime story. A novel idea, but unfortunately, this film is a bore. Like Stallone's own' Bullet to the Head,' 'Homefront' believes it's cut from the same cloth as Walter Hill's 'Southern Comfort,' but it can barely muster up the thrills of an episode of 'MacGuyver.'
There's a glimmer of hope in 'Homefront's' opening sequence, a grungy drug bust that reveals Phil Broker (Statham) to be an ass-kicking undercover cop. The raid sends gangsters fleeing, but a few roundhouse kicks and a car chase later, Broker pins down the ringleaders. But, his back-up is too quick on the trigger; letting loose in a spray of bullets and blood, they take Nameless Bad Guy #1 down, pissing off his father, Nameless Bad Guy #2, who vows revenge against Broker. With an old school synth backing up the violent clowning, director Gary Fleder ('Runaway Jury') channels 'Cobra'-era Stallone — a fond and fleeting memory.
Jump forward two years and Broker is out of the police game, relocated to Louisiana after the death of his wife (you know, because these brutish types need to be single fathers in order for us to understand them emotionally). Unfortunately, the laid back town of Rayville, Louisiana is also a hotbed for criminal activity, overseen by the wily meth cook Gator Bodine (James Franco). After his daughter beats the snot out of a schoolyard bully, Broker discovers the wrong side of his town's tracks. He's chewed out by the bully's mom, Klum (Kate Bosworth), a tumultuous drug addict who also happens to be Gator's sister. Hoping to retaliate against Bodine (who's awful at hiding his fight training and law enforcement background) Klum pressures her brother to turn up the heat on Rayville's newest resident. It's only a matter of time before Bodine unearths Gator's backwater operation.
It's hard to tell if Franco's turn as the know-it-all gangster with a Southern drawl is a work of outsider art or a legitimate stab at playing a B-movie villain, and either way, his wild-eyed, over-the-top scheming counteracts 'Homefront' with so-bad-its-good silliness. But non-existent support keeps his work from hitting Alien-in-'Spring-Breakers'-level transcendence. Stallone's adaptation of the Chuck Logan crime novel limps schizophrenically from set piece to set piece, tossing scene chewers like Franco and Statham 'Expendables' table scraps rather than the meat of '80s shoot'em-ups. There's a long chunk of the movie completely lost in the fog of exposition, a plan between Gator and his girlfriend (Winona Ryder) to eliminate Bodine by selling off his location to a team of old foes. 'Homefront' makes an amazing, ridiculous promise of pitting Statham against Franco, an individual mad enough to be the graduate student version of The Joker. The movie dilutes the face-off with an incomprehensible plot that's too serious and square for its own good.
Statham has proved he can pull spectacle out of a hat amidst even the most inert drivel (see: 'Killer Elite') as long as he has a director behind the camera who can stage his fight choreography. Fleder drops the ball in the action category, reducing Statham's physicality with handheld camerawork and chopped-to-bits editing. When there's innovative action filmmaking happening on the direct-to-video side, steady shooting with real fighters duking it out, it's befuddling why modern Hollywood fisticuffs fake velocity with whip pans and zooms. There are a few grisly deaths that should elicit hoots and hollers from the audience — Bodine's buddy, played by Omar Benson Miller, outdoes his costar with a rage-filled pitchfork kill — but disguised action melds the keystone moments right into the plodding narrative. Ho-humfront.
Everything in the movie fizzles out. The whackadoo Bosworth disappears from the latter half of the movie. Frank Grillo shows up and disappears in the span of three bullets. Even Franco, who starts the movie by kicking a trio of teenagers' asses with a baseball bat, is stuck running from Statham until a showy non-confrontation. 'Homefront' masquerades as a “hard R” action movie that thinks all it takes is a bevy of F-bombs and overly explosive blood squibs. No dice, Stallone. Statham deserves better.
'Homefront' opens in theaters on November 27.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room.