Director Tanya Wexler freshens up this 'John Wick' retread with a knowing, feminist edge that still delivers some terrific action sequences.
- 💥 Beckinsale's sly, winking performance as Lindy gives mileage to a premise that has already been done too many times before.
- 💥 Shooting in Portugal, Wexler gives the character's world a warm, inviting edge that makes the whole movie more fun.
- 💥 Screenwriter Scott Wascha gets ahead of himself with world-building when the story needs more time between Lindy and Justin (Jai Courtney) to be fully convincing.
If there weren’t already a dozen of them, I would welcome a “female John Wick” with open arms. Sure, sure — the nuances of these films are what distinguish them from one another. (Just like Nobody isn’t exactly a John Wick retread from the screenwriter and creator of John Wick.) But what the new film Jolt lacks in originality (we see you, Atomic Blonde, which was, that’s right, made by the director of John Wick), at least it makes up for in fun: Kate Beckinsale gleefully personifies righteous female anger as an easily-triggered bouncer searching for her boyfriend’s murderer, one pummeled crotch at a time. Aided in a welcome change of pace by a female director, Buffaloed helmer Tanya Wexler, Beckinsale almost makes you forget that she’s effectively tracing the path of Keanu Reeves’ character (and let’s be fair, plenty of vengeance-seeking bruisers before him), while screenwriter Scott Wascha skillfully swaps out character names and shadowy, neon-lit locations to build a similar-but-we-promise-this-is totally different-in-the-end mythology for her female ass-kicker.
Sporting a blonde dye job that conceals her brown roots like action-hero bona fides papered over a “serious actress” pedigree, Beckinsale plays Lindy, a young woman with an anger-management problem that she regulates by administering electric shocks to herself throughout the day. The cortisol coursing through her veins is simply just too strong for her to control, so most of her existence is devoted to trying to suppress the urge to break someone’s nose, face or back, no matter how small the transgression; it’s also why she backs only uneasily into a courtship with Justin (Jai Courtney), a blind date who unexpectedly circumnavigates her natural defenses. After a blissful second date, Justin gives her a special gift — a camera — but before they can enjoy a third, he gets murdered, leaving her bereft even before they could formally call each other boyfriend and girlfriend. Overwhelmed by grief, she decides to hunt down the person responsible and make them pay.
Of course, the authorities — in particular, Detectives Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and Nevin (Laverne Cox) — are already on the case, and each time she gets involved, more evidence piles up that points to her as the perpetrator. But as she learns more information about Justin, Lindy also uncovers an elaborate criminal empire where he served as an accountant for the mysterious and well-connected Gareth Fizel (David Bradley), who predictably lives in creepy isolation and staffs a small army of henchmen to do his bidding. The closer she gets to the truth, the more trouble Lindy finds herself in, until she’s fighting for her life as the cops follow hot on her tail, promising a comfy jail cell for her right next to Fizel — or whoever might have killed the first man she truly cared about in longer than she can remember.
The advantage that John Wick has over this film — and many like it — is that the franchise does not bother to reveal details about his past or its overall world until it’s relevant to the plot; Jolt begins with a long, expository sequence explaining that “Lindy was never given enough love” and as a consequence developed “intermittent explosive disorder” (or something like that) which prompts her to throttle anyone who even vaguely jeopardizes her emotional equilibrium. The attempted solutions to this during her childhood and adolescence included military training and other high-impact instruction that refined and focused her anger; her psychologist Dr. Munchin (Stanley Tucci) eventually developed the electric flak jacket for her to literally shock herself back into complacency. They might as well just paste all of this business on a card at the beginning of the film since we barely see her functioning as an adult before her “blind date,” and it mostly just serves as an excuse for her to pummel one person after another, which, if we’re being honest, few viewers watching this film need to hear to enjoy the various pummelings.
At barely 90 minutes, however, Wexler stretches the premise as far as she can, until a finale hints at a larger universe where her “disability” might actually be part of some larger mythology. But quite frankly, more time could have been spent setting up her magical date and the subsequent time before Justin’s murder; aside from the inviolable rule of killing a dog in a film, John Wick at least explained why the animal was additionally meaningful (blah blah dead wife’s last wish and all of that jazz). The funniest running joke in the film is her constant effort to qualify and categorize their relationship after (literally) two dates, which in a less skilled filmmaker’s hands might seem fully preposterous but Wexler portrays with just the right level of bemused incredulity. Unfortunately, the director is less skilled at combining shots of Beckinsale in action with those of her stunt double, so when Lindy takes out three or four opponents at the same time with a dizzying sequence of kicks and punches, the camera lingers far too long at an angle over the character’s shoulder.
That said, Beckinsale delivers a wry performance that’s just knowing enough to get around the reductive elements of a female character in these circumstances; suffice it to say that several dozen idealized female characters have been fridged in cinema history to motivate a character’s bloodlust, but she delivers the character’s overnight attachment with an appealing wink. Courtney makes for the right kind of blandly “perfect” new man for her to catch feelings about, while Cannavale and Cox play a sort of Greek chorus watching the sequence of events surrounding her at arm’s length and responding with appropriate disbelief. With all respect to David Bradley as Fizel, the only thing conveys as well as privileged menace is an absolute brittleness; in one scene there’s a shot of him suspended on hooks, and I was momentarily convinced that Wexler was going to kill him before Lindy could. Meanwhile, Tucci has been steadily refining a “Stanley Tucci type” character since well before The Devil Wears Prada, and here effortlessly balances paternalistic authority, rarified expertise and well-intentioned duplicitousness to be a perfect sounding board and foil for Lindy.
Shooting in Portugal, the film’s backdrops look unexpectedly fresh — much warmer than the sterile repetition of Vancouver, where everything else is typically shot. And even if she doesn’t do all of the stunts herself, Beckinsale makes us believe that she would rip a man’s Prince Albert piercing out without removing his pants first, whether or not she actually could. All of which is to say, this movie is just about as much fun as those created, inspired or spun off from Kolstad’s because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and offers some pretty terrific action scenes (if also at least one too many where she gets knocked unconscious). Ultimately, with the character’s emotional dimensionality and propensity for brutal violence, this is a considerably more appealing franchise for Beckinsale to develop than the icy, forgettable Underworld films; but even boiled down to a “female John Wick,” if Jolt doesn’t necessarily elevate the pulse of contemporary action, at the very least it comfortably maintains the same pace.
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