Hotel Artemis is a stylish crime thriller with a grab bag of pulpy characters, cool quips, and teeth rattling action.
Whoa, after five years Jodie Foster comes out of her self-imposed acting semi-retirement to star in writer-director Drew Pearce’s debut passion project centring on a rogues’ gallery of wacky criminals hiding out in Hotel Artemis. It’s an old-school Hollywood boarding house, which doubles up as a members only and black market hospital. Foster brings her trademark steeliness underpinned by a haunting melancholy that has been her bread and butter since Taxi Driver (1976) to the almost nameless role of an agoraphobic nurse scraping by in the shadows of a riot-torn Los Angels in 2028. Yeah, it’s an interesting high-concept idea, but is it any good? Well, Pearce, who’s proven his action and cool quip mettle co-writing the Marmite of Marvel films Iron Man 3 (2013), delivers a stylish crime thriller that frustratingly never quite lives up to its stitched together promise of cyber-pulp villains, talking coffee pots, and nanites.
We open on a masked bank robber, Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown, cool and charismatic) and guess what, he’s having a bad Wednesday afternoon in downtown LA. He and his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry, so hot right now), just can’t crack the bank vault they’re trying to plunder. So, the boys snatch and run, grabbing what they can from the beleaguered bank customers, and Honolulu just so happens to swipe a golden fountain pen belonging to The Wolf King, the city’s most feared crime boss. Yeah, not good. And things get worse for Waikiki and his bro, as they’re swept up into a riot against the city’s privatised and dwindling water supply, and the streets are teeming with cybernetic cops. Yep, shoot-out time. Honolulu gets a belly full of lead, and Waikiki heads to the only place he knows that unleads professional criminals no questions asked. Hotel Artemis.
If nothing else, Drew Pearce’s directorial debut showcases his keen eye for world building, as The Nurse (Jodie Foster) fitfully awakens in the faded glory of her art deco-style hotel room, with a wish fulfilment mural of a far-off tropical paradise peeling from its back wall, wedged against the furious futurism of a blaring holo-screen full of LA bloodshed in a post-Trumpian dystopia (perhaps, getting closer everyday…). The outside world burns, The Nurse just yawns, it’s business as usual for Hotel Artemis. Or is it… bottle necked inside the hotel’s claustrophobic walls and blood stained floors, The Nurse dollops out 3-D printed livers, robotic eyes, and healing nanites, all to her hotel-room named patients – Nice (Sofia Boutella, an alluring screen presence) Acapulco (Charlie Day, in full adderall rage mode) and of course, Waikiki and his bro. And they’re all keeping murderous secrets from each other… and in such a confined space it isn’t long before orderly, Everest (Dave Bautista, in another scene stealing role) shovel-like hands are kept busy keeping the guests from each others throats.
The night-shift unravels into chaos, smartly barbed insults fly: “I’m a professional, but this woman, she’s the business” states Waikiki, as Nice and Acapulco face-off in a tetchy encounter that almost breaks the hotel’s strict list of rules – no weapons allowed, no killing other patients, no compromising the location, etc. But there’s no honour among thieves, right? Well, yes that’s true, and everybody breaks the rules. Even the hotel’s owner, The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum, at his most Goldblumest) demands special medical treatment after a failed assassination attempt or was it, leaves a sizeable hole in his neck. As the tired old hippy’s boneheaded son, Crosby Franklin, (Zachary Quinto, cartoony villain of the year) rocks up with a gang of thugs and puts the squeeze on the hotel’s staff. Weirdly, the big bad’s final arrival feels a tad flat-footed in a hotel chock-full of killers, what’s one more…?
It’s pacy and witty B-movie fare, calling to mind Jan Kounen’s cult gem Dobermann (1997) and Robert Avery’s forgotten Killing Zoe (1993). In the flash and bombast of the plot that throws in 3-D printed hand cannons, fountain pen safes, and exploding cigarette cases, all in an effort to raise the plateauing stakes, it’s the presence of Jodie Foster, which is the most captivating. As she fully commits to The Nurse’s agoraphobic and ho-hum-ish backstory of a mother buried in decades-long grief over the death of her troubled son, elevating it to heartbreaking levels of intensity. And you would expect nothing less from the double Oscar winner; steely-eyed, salty, firing off lines of dialogue like a shotgun. The Nurse, just a little old lady, pretty much carries the story trapped within the walls of Hotel Artemis, pushed to the brink saving the lives of the city’s most undesirables. Well, somebody’s got to do it, right.
The film is an imaginative future clash that pits the roaring glamor of 1920’s Hollywood against the cyber-punk grit of a William Gibson novel (Neuromancer, or any of The Sprawl trilogy). All the more impressive given Hotel Artemis’s operating rooms, secret passageways, and riot filled alleyways, where fully realised on just a shoestring budget of fifteen million dollars. And yet for such a detailed world the characters and story never feels quite as big or engaging. It might be because the final payoff of watching a pack of roguish characters escape their own mental prisons doesn’t feel like much of a victory, when they will all probably die of dehydration within a few days… Without a doubt, Drew Pearce is a writer-director to keep an eye on, and as Waikiki would say “Work with what you got, not what you hope for.” Clearly, Pearce has a flare for pulpy action cinema, but maybe next time he will give his colourful characters a little more to chew on and put them to better use… Hotel Artemis II, anyone? Yeah, why not!?
You’ll check in for the gun-toting action but Jodie Foster is the real reason you’ll want to stay at Hotel Artemis.