George Gallo's crime thriller makes very little sense and gives its two gifted stars nothing to do.
- * The architecture of the futuristic house where Freeman spends the entire film is really beautiful, if likely unaffordable even on a corrupt cop's salary.
- * Freeman would actually have to do more to call his performance 'phoned in.'
- * Gallo's staging of literally every scene fails to create a believable reality, much less a tether to any semblance of normal life.
I saw a friend recently criticizing the term ‘straight to video’ as an outdated pejorative, and broadly speaking, I agreed: even if streaming options hadn’t outright obliterated the distinction, there are too many films made at different financial levels for something cheap or even potentially exploitative (in genre terms) to be dismissed out of hand with that reductive label. But then there are movies like Vanquish. Directed by George Gallo and starring Ruby Rose and Morgan Freeman, it feels like the platonic definition of “straight to video,” featuring one star looking for a leading role at all costs, and another cashing a paycheck, in a story that blandly copies conventions from five or ten or more bigger, better movies. The fact that its limited theatrical window lasts just ten or so days before its debut on home video further shores up those “STV” bona fides, but in an era of almost too many movies to choose from, there’s no excuse for Vanquish to be this flat and uninspired.
Freeman plays Damon, a decorated veteran policeman bound to a motorized wheelchair after being shot in the line of duty. He lives in a palatial, futuristic mansion where Victoria (Rose) works as his caretaker, and frequently brings her ailing daughter Lily (Juju Journey Brener) to visit. But when a suspect of Damon’s colleagues reveals that he and they have been under surveillance by internal affairs for corruption, Damon decides to enlist Victoria to make a series of pick-ups for him, gathering money that they’ve been receiving from local drug dealers and gangsters in exchange for protecting them from prosecution.
Although she comes from a criminal past, Victoria declines the offer, having turned her life around to focus on being a good parent to Lily and an upstanding member of society. But when Damon kidnaps Lily and forces her to make the pick-ups anyway, Victoria reluctantly becomes a courier for his corrupt operation, putting her in the crosshairs of both Damon’s enemies, and a few of her own that she hoped never to see again. Before long, Victoria is racing across the city in the hopes of saving her daughter’s life, with mobsters and not just corrupt cops but law-abiding ones as well standing in the way of a desperate family reunion.
Vanquish is the type of movie that thinks it’s “high concept” but seems not to have bothered to consider the logistics of that concept at all. Certainly it doesn’t help that a supporting cast, such as the small group playing Damon’s corrupt co-conspirators, is comprised of actors who are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and quite frankly could be replaced by carboard cutouts without adversely affecting the scenes in which they appear. But almost every scene carries the halfhearted energy of capitulation to a producer’s note — a brutal interrogation scene where a cop inexplicably doesn’t reveal holding the object his partners are searching for until their suspect is so badly beaten he dies; a shootout in a Eastern-European-owned strip club where the owner knew, and in fact, murdered, Victoria’s brother; motorcycle chases that this movie cannot afford and director George Gallo, much less his second-unit team, don’t know how to shoot; and a climactic moment of vulnerability for Victoria, turned around only by doing cocaine that’s been haphazardly piled on a nearby table in some unwieldly combination of Crank and Scarface.
Just try and understand: Freeman is a decorated police officer who gets regular newspaper headlines, but he lives in a Getty-like supermansion and has an ex-convict as a caretaker. Rose rides a motorcycle everywhere but she has a daughter who suffers from medical ailments and you may or may not be surprised to learn she considers “the first thing I did right.” These two people are supposedly friends. But Freeman, who claims in an opening scene that he thinks little Lily is an “angel” who he loves unconditionally, kidnaps her and forces Rose to make five runs in one night to different organizations that almost all immediately try to kill her. And yet, the movie makes a concerted effort to distinguish Damon from his corrupt partners, and wants us to not think of him as a bad guy.
The action is all clumsy and incomprehensible, and as lazy a performance as Freeman gives, Rose exudes a kind of steely resilience that makes her feel more like the avatar in a video game than a real person. Gallo wrote Midnight Run and Bad Boys, but here he cannot even get this world to look real, providing no sense what constitutes “normal” in this universe where everyone is either corrupt or criminal in the past, present or future. Double crosses happen that make no sense, and new characters appear to exert pressure but there’s no context who they are, or why, say, they wouldn’t just arrest a bunch of corrupt cops, or kill the dealers they’re competing with and take their wares. Thankfully, there are a lot of previous scene flashbacks so that as the audience we can watch what just happened, and show that Victoria is thinking very seriously about that as she moves forward into another completely nondescript life-threatening scenario.
And so, Vanquish is sort of bafflingly bad, up to and including its title, which to my memory does not mean or relate to anything that happens in the film. Freeman has certainly phoned in performances in the past, but you get a sense that he’s in a wheelchair more because he wanted to do as little as possible than it was an essential detail for the role. Rose has demonstrated in the past that she’s got charisma to burn and more than a promise of real acting talent, but this type of work does her no favors at all. Ultimately, this is the cheapie version of a real movie, and sometimes that sort of also-ran entertainment can get by on scruffy charm or truly insane choices, but Gallo’s film is alternately bland and polished, landing with a lifeless thud on the screen. In fact, it feels like an insult to ‘straight to video’ to give Vanquish that title, because for better or worse you might rent that and run home and watch it, but this deserves to be forgotten on some dusty bottom shelf.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.
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