Jodie Foster leads an ensemble that includes Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum and Sofia Boutella in a noirish crime drama set in a violence-wracked L.A.
With Hotel Artemis, writer-director Drew Pearce has devised a novel approach to one of moviedom’s favorite pursuits: putting Los Angeles through the dystopian wringer. The civil unrest that grips the city in his near-future vision is suggested rather than explored head-on. Mostly it rages outside the confines of the title location, a once-grand downtown building that houses a covert private hospital for dues-paying criminals. Because those bullet wounds don't heal themselves.
The noir-tinged action unfolds over a particularly busy night for the Artemis, with a ragtag collection of upper-echelon miscreants checking in to receive the discreet but no-nonsense medical care of the Nurse, a hard-drinking, agoraphobic, working-class toughie bearing the contrived narrative weight of a mother’s broken heart. She's played by Jodie Foster, digging into her most substantial role since her villainous bureaucrat in 2013’s Elysium, with its more conventional sci-fi spin on dystopia. Foster finds the damaged, self-medicating core of her character, but she's undercut by the stubborn flatness of the drama, despite its originality and smarts.
At the helm of his first feature, Iron Man 3 screenwriter Pearce and his collaborators have created a darkly cartoonish sensibility for a lean, grown-up storyline. The flavorful cast inhabit vividly drawn characters, and, perhaps most of all, the film exudes wall-to-wall, high-grunge atmosphere. That’s a lot of checked-off boxes, and yet the effect is efficiently wild rather than wildly involving, entertaining but not indelible. It's hard not to want more from this movie, or to wonder what Pearce might come up with after he's done writing Sherlock Holmes 3 and a Ghostbusters project. Pearce choreographs the action with concision and energy, but it’s two-dimensional energy, like a graphic novel that never lifts off the page.
As the story begins, so does summer for 2028 Los Angeles. But L.A. isn’t preparing for the Olympic Games or any celebration. It’s burning, three days into riots of a historic scale. The uprising is the understandable reaction after corporate no-goodniks — the true, unseen criminals of the movie — shut off the city’s water supply. While the streets combust, Sterling K. Brown's quick-witted thief, Sherman, makes his way to the Artemis, seeking medical help for his brother, Lev (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s badly injured during their escape from a strategically engineered bank heist. Before their botched getaway, Lev, who’s more of an albatross to his sibling than a partner in crime, inadvertently nabs the ultra-valuable MacGuffin that will put them in the crosshairs of a mob boss known as the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum).
The real star of the film is the title structure, a Gothic-Art Deco mashup of faded extravagance. Ramsey Avery's production design, in a palette of tarnished jewel tones, is evocatively captured by the unshowy camerawork of Chung-hoon Chung (The Handmaiden), and it’s well-matched by composer Cliff Martinez's richly textured retro-modern score. In the Artemis, each themed room is designed to evoke a glamorous vacation destination, and each anonymous guest is known by his or her room’s name. During the tense hours of their stay, Sherman and Lev become Waikiki and Honolulu. Acapulco (Charlie Day) is a coked-up American chauvinist — not just a mercenary, xenophobic arms dealer but a loudmouthed sexist creep. When he turns his condescending come-ons toward the femme fatale (action star Sofia Boutella) in the Nice suite, he has no idea what he’s getting into.
A couple of nonmembers, too, show up at the Nurse’s gated door, desperate for the help that she and her right-hand strongman, handyman and medical assistant, Everest (Dave Bautista, engagingly lending earnest devotion to the brawn) dispense to those who respect the house rules. Besides Goldblum’s crime boss, who arrives with his feckless son (Zachary Quinto) and a squadron of goons in tow, there’s an injured cop (Jenny Slate), whose personal connection to the Nurse unconvincingly tests her hotel rules and sentimentally dredges up the backstory that the film has been pointing toward, with little subtlety, from the get-go.
There are some terrifically played moments, not least in the sympathetic but fraught chemistry between Foster’s anxiety-ridden, rough-around-the-edges healer and Goldblum's smooth-talking, nefarious one-percenter. But only one thread in the multi-strand skein really gets beneath the surface: the story of brothers Sherman and Lev. The movie could have used more of them and less of Boutella’s cool brutality, but TV stars Sterling (This Is Us) and Henry (Atlanta) make the most of every moment, and Henry especially has a gift for communicating confessions, longings and regrets with just a glance.
Though much of the movie lacks the sting and poignancy of the brothers’ subplot, Pearce has conjured a believable netherworld as safe haven, deftly melding contemporary and vintage aesthetics with futuristic technology that’s anything but shiny. Given the setting, thoughts of Blade Runner are inevitable, but with its ghostly, labyrinthine realm of dimly lighted hallways, Hotel Artemis is reminiscent of key locations in the L.A.-set Drive (a film that was also scored by Martinez). Within the decorated gloom, its characters get glimpses of hell and of hope. Too often, though, they’re overshadowed by the wall sconces and murals, the industrial declay and flickering lights.
Production companies: The Ink Factory, 127 Wall
Distributor: Global Road Entertainment
Cast: Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Brian Tyree Henry, Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Day, Dave Bautista
Director-screenwriter: Drew Pearce
Producers: Adam Siegel, Marc Platt, Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell
Executive producers: Jeffrey Stott, Drew Pearce, Joe Tsai, Arthur Wang
Director of photography: Chung-hoon Chung
Production designer: Ramsey Avery
Costume designer: Lisa Lovaas
Editors: Paul Zucker, Gardner Gould
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Casting director: Tiffany Little Canfield
Rated R, 93 minutes