Wednesday, December 11, 2013

HOMEFRONT Is a Strange Brew


- HOMEFRONT isn't amazing, but it is pretty damn entertaining, in a vintage B-movie sort of way. The script was written years ago by none other than Sylvester Stallone, and originally he was set to star in the film. And in many ways, this feels like a vintage 1980's-era action flick, with Stallone's particular sensibilities very much retained in this updated take. But instead of Stallone, Homefront stars his Expendables brother-in-arms, Jason Statham. Meanwhile, James Franco, in what has to be one of the oddest hero/villain pairings in quite some time, plays a sleazy small-time drug dealer who runs afoul of Statham's ex-undercover DEA agent. There's not much nuance to this story, but there's a pleasingly simple, down n' dirty southern-gothic-noir vibe to the whole thing (the Louisiana setting doesn't hurt). If you're down for a 70's/80's-style B-movie that makes up for a flimsy script with a serious vibe of badassery, you could do worse.

In HOMEFRONT, Statham plays Phil Broker, a guy who once lived on the edge doing undercover work for the DEA, but who now lives a quiet and unassuming life with his young daughter, Maddy, under a new name and identity. As the movie shows in flashback, Broker spent years posing as a member of the Outcasts biker gang (yep), only to get serious heat on himself when he finally pulled the trigger and helped the DEA take down the gang, which ran a high-level drug trade. Not only was Broker exposed as a traitor to the Outcasts, but he became their sworn enemy when the gang-leader's son was killed in the crossfire during the DEA raid. Around that same time, Broker's wife died, leaving him alone with Maddy. The two assume new ID's and move to his wife's hometown in Louisiana, where Broker takes a construction job and tries to live a quiet, small-town life. However, trouble finds him when he runs afoul of local drug dealer Gator (James Franco). Gator stumbles upon Broker's true identity, and sells him out to the Outcasts. Soon enough, the trouble that Broker had hoped wouldn't find him again descends on him with a vengeance.

The movie follows a predictable arc of "just when I thought I was out ...", but it doesn't overplay that hand and become self-parody. What impressed me about HOMEFRONT was that the film maintained a dark, atmospheric, pulpy tone throughout. Statham is, mostly, in "real actor" mode here, which helps. That said, the movie does have a select few interludes where it becomes pure Statham-style action. These action scenes are fun, but there's a little bit of disconnect between their high-octane style and the rest of the film's lower-key aesthetic. That aesthetic seems more in line with director Gary Fleder's usual style, and Fleder seems to embrace the film's grittier aspects. Fleder helps keep the movie relatively grounded, and seems to reign in the action so that it's never too over-the-top (with perhaps one or two lapses).

As for Franco, he's good as Gator, delving into the same white-trash vicinity as his celebrated character Alien from this year's Spring Breakers. Franco doesn't take Gator to quite the same iconic heights as Alien, but he still adds some spark to the film and does well as a small-timer who gets in over his head. The real scene-stealer of the movie though is, believe it or not, Kate Bosworth. Playing Gator's trailer-trash, drug-addicted sister, Bosworth turns in a gloriously unhinged performance that I didn't know she had in her. Meanwhile, a few welcome faces turn up in supporting roles: Clancy Brown as a crooked sheriff, Winona Ryder as Gator's street-smart girlfriend, and Frank Grillo as the intimidating heavy of the Outcast gang. I'll also mention that child actor Izabela Vidovic is quite good as Statham's daughter. She really sells her big scenes, and helps us invest in Broker and his quest to shield his daughter from harm.

Where does HOMEFRONT falter? I think it loses its way in a couple of respects. One is simply that the plotting is only so-so. I like the premise and initial plot set-up, and I like the notion of this small-time drug-dealer exposing Statham's ID and unleashing an angry gang onto this small backwoods town. But the way the movie plays out, it never feels like it's fully taking advantage of its premise's potential for drama. I felt like Broker's transition from unassuming small-town dad to pissed-off ass-kicker on a mission just sort of happens, and it's never quite properly built up to in a satisfying manner. Especially as compared to action movies like Taken, that do a great job of creating that build-up to their heroes going full-badass. I suppose the larger problem here is a movie that is a bit at odds with itself. Is it a Taken-style action flick? A gritty crime noir? Fleder obviously favors the latter, but there are lots of teases of the former. And the movie rarely meshes both in a way that works (unlike, say, this year's Mud, which mixed genres in unexpected and thrilling ways). In any case, an example of this is that on one level, the movie seems to be building towards an epic shoot 'em up climax, but said all-hell-breaks-loose finale never quite comes. From a tonal perspective, I see where that makes sense. From a plot perspective, you feel a bit shortchanged. So again, the two seem at odds.

The other way in which the movie goes a bit off the rails is, hate to say it, the script. Again, it may be a matter of Stallone's unsubtle style clashing just a bit with a director who likes to go the more subtle route. I mean, how subtle can your movie be when it opens on a gang of 80's hair-metal rejects called "The Outcasts" as the main antagonists? To that end, you sort of wonder if this movie would be better served were it trying to be less No Country For Old Men and more Cobra. In a way, it's fun to see the sorta-weird mash-up of Stallone and Fleder and Statham come together. On the other hand, the end result is a movie that feels a bit schizophrenic.

Still, there is a definite pleasure in HOMEFRONT's B-movie oddness. It's fun to see all the elements of 80's-style cheese and Statham-style hyper-action pop up amidst Fleder's attempt to make something a little more sober and soulful. And there's a madcap sense of fun in seeing Jason Statham, James Franco, Frank Grillo, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, and Clancy Brown mix it up - an eclectic cast if ever there was one. Perhaps not a must-see, but if you're a certain brand of film-fan, you'll definitely want to give this a look.

My Grade: B

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