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NPR Arts & Life

'Hotel Artemis' Aims For B-Movie Thrills, But Earns A C-Plus

Room, Serviced: Sterling K. Brown (in background) and Jodie Foster in <em>Hotel Artemis.</em>
Room, Serviced: Sterling K. Brown (in background) and Jodie Foster in <em>Hotel Artemis.</em>

In time and place of utter lawlessness, what matters more than money and survival? Family and friendship, declares Hotel Artemis, amid its antic nihilism. That's not exactly a fresh movie moral. But then freshness isn't the point of this intermittently clever action-comedy, which aspires to be a B-movie but may have aimed too high.

The feature-directing debut of Iron Man 3 screenwriter Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis takes a Hollywood veteran's delight in depicting California's tomorrowland as a hellhole: One evil multinational has shut off the water, causing the locals to riot, which it turn spurs another corporate malevolence to send in Robocop-like troopers to smash the rioters.

Meanwhile, a bunch of crooks converge on Hotel Artemis, a member's-only spot in a downtown L.A. still full of beautiful if dilapidated pre-WWII buildings. The Artemis is a place where old and new dovetail, whether in the mix-and-match decor or the simultaneous use of high-tech equipment and a phonograph to play '60s and '70s Cali folk-rock.

A hotel that's exclusively for criminals was one of the droller features of John Wick, but this one's a little different. The Artemis is actually a hospital, run by the Nurse (Jodie Foster) with help from robotic surgery equipment and a bodyguard called Everest (man-mountain Dave Bautista). The Nurse is no-nonsense and super-competent, but also alcoholic, agoraphobic, and tormented by memories. (About family, of course.)

On this busy night, the Artemis is nearly overbooked. Already on the premises are an unbearable gun runner (Charlie Day) and a French assassin (Sofia Boutella) who's a female badass straight out of Luc Besson's most-treasured fantasies — as well as a nod to a few dozen of Pearce's Asian-action inspirations.

First to arrive are two hapless sibling bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry), with the latter close to death. On his way is the local crime boss (Jeff Goldblum), preceded by his uptight, inadequate son (Zachary Quinto). The Nurse, a stickler about rules, breaks them by admitting an injured cop (Jenny Slate) who's a link to her normal, pre-Artemis past.

The movie's premise is enjoyable, even if stitched together from a pile of dystopian hand-me-downs, and the comic moments are sharp. What fails is the pacing and, ultimately, the plot. Neither the jokes nor the outbursts of ultraviolence arrive quickly enough, or with an assured sense of rhythm.

In her first role in five years, Foster brings more shading to her character than can be found in Pearce's dialogue, which is overloaded with catchphrases. (Amusingly, Foster sometimes sounds as if she's doing a Steve Buscemi impression.) Brown is also nuanced, playing a loyal big brother to a man whose criminal instincts just aren't very good. Boutella and Bautista are fine in primarily physical roles. The rest of the actors either have little to do or — in the case of Goldblum — do exactly what's expected of them.

Pearce is British, which is evident from an arch cynicism that recalls Kick-Ass, another British daydream of American mayhem. But he has studied L.A. myths, and not only via the movies. Goldblum's character is called the Wolf King, a name derived from a solo album by John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and the Papas, whose sunny voices resonate through the dingy Artemis.

More such touches would have helped, but the movie might have clicked if it simply stuck to the B-movie basics and made the action scenes more exciting. L.A. is burning, yet Hotel Artemis barely smolders.

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