A Lost Weekend at 'Hotel Artemis' | Episode 96.5
Posted June 11, 2018
-review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
If every summer needs its Atomic Blonde — that stylish, violent, well-cast, over-stimulated, completely ludicrous and inessential action film — well, welcome to Hotel Artemis. Written and directed by Iron Man 3 co-scribe Drew Pearce, it’s a beautifully simple movie to pitch: in a dystopic Los Angeles of the near future, a half-dozen criminals spend a tense night in an underworld hospital.
We check into the "hotel" with a pair of bank-robbing brothers, Waikiki and Honolulu, played by Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, respectively. They’ve taken on those pseudonyms based on their room assignments at the Artemis, as is the building’s custom. Tyree Henry’s character has been critically wounded in the robbery that opens the film, and the brothers hightail it to the Artemis amid a growing riot outside. On that front, desperate and protesting Angelinos are battling private police forces for access to water. And in movie rules, a cabal of thieves, arms dealers and assassins is far less scary than this civil unrest. Because the hospital actually has rules, namely, there’s no fighting in the Artemis, and you must be a member to enter. (The assassins’ asylum from the middle act of John Wick is a pretty clear reference point here.)
The arbiter of these rules and the woman stitching everyone up goes simply by “The Nurse” (Jodie Foster). She’s a whiskey-swilling, laser-scalpel-wielding surgeon, who the film is begging me to describe as "a tough cookie." And so I will do that now. When the tough cookie act doesn’t keep the violent crooks in line, her orderly Everest (Dave Bautista) does.
The film’s powderkeg narrative works well, especially when you have an ensemble comprising such different temperaments. Mix in the fact that every guest has some sort of injury for which they seem to need both painkillers and stimulants, and each interaction becomes a test. Charlie Day plays a pissy, boorish arms dealer, who clashes well with Sofia Boutella continuing to get mileage out of her menacing, vixen assassin schtick (that you might remember from such films as, hey, Atomic Blonde). And Bautista makes for a lovable lunk, trying his best at being a diplomat. Everest seems carved from tattooed marble to commit violent acts but keeps insisting he’s a healthcare professional. Still, he “will unheal the shit out of” Artemis guests who act up.
And Sterling K. Brown plays well off everyone. Hotel Artemis marks a really well-deserved venue for Brown to see if the sentiment and charisma that made him a star on American Crime Story and This Is Us can helm a movie. Well, he can, even without much help from the script. While Waikiki is given only vague motivations that fall in the category of just wanting to be his own man, Brown is in here doing what movie stars do — making pretty stock lines feel like the product of a distinct personality. “I’m trying really hard to keep myself to myself,” Brown’s character warns Charlie Day’s with genuine softness and the tangible feeling that he’s mentally blocking out 50 different ways to kill him. Brown admirably savors what little dialogue does build out his character, taking the patter seriously the way only a few good actors would when thrust into an otherwise silly genre movie. It’s Viggo Mortensen-esque.
But let’s talk about the writing writ large. It’s not surprising Drew Pearce’s biggest credit to date came from collaborating with Shane Black (on Iron Man 3). The writing in his directorial debut is quippy and very knowing, but it also suffers from the perennial Shane Black problem of forced sentiment. Why, after two decades of running the hotel, does The Nurse turn up a facedown photo of her son on this particular night? Why does she seem so ripe for an emotional crisis? In a story that’s pleasure will be in its incidental perfect storm, why would a sleek, 90-minute movie be drawn toward anything resembling origin stories? If Pearce wants to insist on doing more in his script, why not consider what it means for societal outcasts to have members-only access to healthcare while corporations are denying Americans public utilities? There’s something for the hired guns to chat about around the Artemis coffee bar while deciding whether or not to impale each other.
It’s also a script that uses self-awareness like an escape hatch. A few critics in my theater snorted out loud when Zachary Quinto’s character addresses his gangster father with “I know I’m the youngest, but...” and continues describing his life’s ambition, only for his father to respond that it’s "stupid shit" like this confession that’s held him back. It’s a classic guilty plea for knowing exposition-as-dialogue is a problem but blatantly writing it anyway, and then slapping yourself on the wrist for doing so.
Hotel Artemis is an easy movie to slot into the bad-good ranks and a disappointing one for not clearing the quite low good-good bar of the self-contained original screenplay with an exciting, likable cast. A certain sect of filmgoer (the hosts of this show!) spends a lot of time these days asking for more movies like Hotel Artemis to get made. It’s just that Artemis resembles that person’s hazy idea for a movie they’d like go see, not the one that gets them into the theater.