The day filmmaker Drew Pearce lifted the veil off his directorial debut — the coolly designed and extra-violent yet somehow still ungainly Hotel Artemis — he admitted he purposely tried to create “one person’s favorite film, rather than lots of people’s OK film.” Ironically, Pearce accidentally did both.
With Hotel Artemis, first-time feature director Pearce made a genre flick freckled with whip-quick dialogue that snaps off the screen; a film that draws so apparently from horror legend John Carpenter, action director and the adoptive father of the Western movie breed Walter Hill, and the Keanu Reeves-topped bullet bonanza that is the John Wick film series; and one that has the sort of surface-level gusto that goes only deep enough to resonate with a very particular type of watcher. He made what has potential to sit on someone’s “best of” list come December, surely. (Someone who digs bloodshed, under-baked narratives, and B-grade films, but we digress.)
Ultimately, that’s only a tiny percentage of the overall package. Pearce has, on the whole, made the movie he apparently didn’t intend to: one that doesn’t so much leave a sour taste at the back of one’s teeth as it does leave their belly rumbling for more of everything — time with the characters, originality from Pearce (who goes all Dr. Frankenstein with the works he takes inspiration from, bolting their severed ends together to create a fumbly pastiche), room to breathe in its go-go-go pace, reasons to justify itself.
For many — most, even — Hotel Artemis will be más o menos not-quite mediocrity, a kind of nifty little sci-fi noir that’s only satisfying if you don’t pay attention to the fact that it doesn’t really do anything besides look cool and tout an incredibly talented cast. (Jodie actual Foster! Brian Tyree friggin’ Henry! Dave ever-loving Bautista! Jeff bloody Goldblum!)
Set in a riot-ravaged Los Angeles in the year 2028 (that shockingly resembles the vision people had of the new millennium back in the 1990s), Hotel Artemis draws its curtains in media res. Smack! and we’re yanked into a bank robbery orchestrated by Sherman, codenamed “Waikiki” (Sterling K. Brown), and his money-hungry brother Lev, referred to as “Honolulu” (Brian Tyree Henry), who pluck cash from the grass cutters and maids of the rich like cherries from summer trees and get their hands on something they definitely shouldn’t. Inevitably, the siblings’ heist goes from sweet to sour when Honolulu takes a bullet and needs immediate treatment — without having to face more police officers. (Gotta keep that cold, hard cash, amirite?)
The pair naturally wind up at the Hotel Artemis, an exclusive members-only establishment that defies its name and the law in one fell swoop. Kept running (mostly) smoothly by the Nurse (Foster), the Artemis is a hospital for criminals — just like the fading Honolulu and his wicked brother Waikiki, who check in to avoid trouble but find themselves enduring the wrath of the crime boss the Wolf King (Goldblum). It’s derivative of the John Wick franchise’s Continental — with a set of rules include “no cops” and “no killing each other” — but it’s nowhere near as sleek or sanitary, as the scent of dried blood and death clings to the walls and wafts through the dust-speckled air. The place is a last-resort hideout (even with its massive neon sign placed conspicuously above its entrance), and one where the rules beg to be broken, the limits long to be tested.
Sadly, Hotel Artemis only ever approaches those boundaries, never busts them open, as if it was following its own set of strict statutes: Don’t go all the way, don’t live to your potential. Watching from a theater seat, audiences will vibrate waiting for the film to flip inside out and for the you-know-what to fly and hit the you-know-where. So much time (and, in turn, potential) is wasted leading up to the big breakdown, and the film never satisfies its viewers’ thirst with interim envelope pushes — a tiny fight scene here or a tense conversation there are nowhere to be found.
Pearce’s vision of an airtight post-heist standoff is greatly benefited by the production design by Ramsey Avery of Minority Report and Tomorrowland fame, but is lacking when it comes to the bones of its storytelling. Simultaneously containing overcooked cliches and loose ends that hang like wet spaghetti and featuring enough evidence to suggest that Pearce really does have all the gumption needed to craft wonderfully tart dialogue (Sofia Boutella’s lines as the stony assassin Nice are especially great), the film feels overwhelmed by its own existence, like Pearce built a world he later learned he didn’t fully know how to thrive inside.
While Hotel Artemis has shimmers of goodness streaking its dingy carpets, the blaring bungles wash them out. Sure, the film rocks an A-list cast that all deliver expectedly stellar performances, but the subplot-on-increasingly-confusing-subplot structure (Jenny Slate’s cop character coming into catalyze the Nurse’s needless backstory was a bad trip), stacked up like someone attempting to break the record for World’s Tallest and Most Grossly Sundry Sandwich, distracts from their talents. Yeah, Hotel Artemis is pretty damn gorgeous to look at, but there’s so much it tries and fails to do at once that your eyes will dart around like mad trying to watch as the film juggles its overstuffed ensemble — including Dave Bautista’s adoring orderly Everest and Charlie Day’s emasculated arms dealer Acapulco, who likes drinking and loves running his mouth. Both these men, plus Zachary Quinto’s daddy’s boy/the Wolf King’s son Crosby Franklin, get squished by the film’s speedy 93 minutes, which are so heavily devoted to exposition that only a small portion of them are left to rush through climax and conclusion.
At one point in the film, Bautista’s Everest reconciles that people work with what they get, not what they hope for. Unfortunately, Hotel Artemis often struggles to do even that.
Giving credit where credit is due, Pearce deserves kudos for making the leap from screenwriting (penning Iron Man 3 and the story for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) to directing, and doing an alright job at it.
Though Hotel Artemis won’t be the perfect place for an extended holiday given its motley storytelling missteps and inability to become the film it could have been, it’s good enough for a one-night stay — only if you’ve got nowhere else to crash.