Jodie Foster hasn’t made a movie since “Elysium” in 2013. Opportunities may not exactly be thick on the ground for actresses who aren’t as young as they once were, but it’s still depressing to see the Oscar winner descend to starring in a piece of pulpish junk like “Hotel Artemis,” particularly since the role requires her to play someone akin to a female version of Gabby Hayes, though one with a sad secret in her past, one telegraphed in her first scene, when she looks longingly at a bedside photo before taking a swig of booze and putting on a record (vinyl, of course; how movies hate CDs) of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
The premise of the script by Drew Pearce, which also serves as the basis for his first feature-length directorial effort, seems to have been inspired by that of “John Wick.” That movie focused on a hotel that catered to hit-men on the run; the locale for this one, set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles ten years from now, is a fortress-like hotel-hospital that admits only pre-paid members—criminals who need treatment for their wounds. Presiding over the establishment is Nurse Jean Thomas (Foster) and her trusty lieutenant/enforcer, man-mountain Everest (Dave Bautista).
The night the story covers is a particularly violent one. The city is experiencing a riot directed against a company that has taken over the distribution of water (apparently part of a privatization process), and there will be more casualties than usual. The first we see arriving are Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown)—known by the name of his assigned suite—and his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry), who has been shot in a botched robbery. Another arrival is the city’s gang leader, absurdly called The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) but also known as Niagara. He actually owns the place, but hasn’t been there in years, and he’s accompanied by his hot-headed son Ilya (Zachary Quinto) and a retinue of thugs. They will join those already in residence, Nice (Sofia Boutella), who, being a hit-woman, probably also has a spot reserved at the Los Angeles Continental, where Wick would repair to, and sleazy, misogynistic businessman Acapulco (Charlie Day). As to any other guests, they’re conspicuous by their absence, though in one snatch of conversation the Nurse suggests that she’s about to put up a No Vacancy sign.
There’s one more complication. Against the rules of the place (and the advice of Everest), the Nurse takes in Morgan (Jenny Slate), a wounded cop. Why? Because doing so gives Pearce the opportunity to introduce, via some gauzy flashbacks, a tragic back story about Nurse’s son. That will have repercussions as the night wears on. There’s also a subplot involving a MacGuffin, a portable “vault” for diamonds that looks like a simple fountain pen. Honolulu took it from a hostage during the robbery, and it turns out to be the property of The Wolf King, who doesn’t take kindly to being denuded of his treasures.
Of course Pearce springs some would-be twists as “Hotel Artemis” plods along, but they prove much more predictable than he intends, and what we’re left with is a sluggish, claustrophobic tale whose complexity is more illusory than real. It is occasionally enlivened by some action spurts, the best pitting athletically lethal Nice against Ilya’s army of singularly inept followers. For the most part, though, the picture is a slog, generating little of the excitement or élan that the original “Wick,” for instance, offered. Matters aren’t helped by the drab, curiously empty hotel interior imagined by production designer Ramsey Avery, or by Chung Chung-hoon’s dank cinematography, or by the lethargic editing of Paul Zucker and Gardner Gould, which moves things along at a snail’s pace even though the movie comes in at little more than an hour-and-a-half.
Under the circumstances the cast can do little to energize the movie. Goldblum gets off a couple of amusing lines in his usual deadpan delivery, Boutella is attractive eye candy, and Bautista continues to get smiles with a character not unlike the one he plays in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But little is asked of Brown or Slate, and both the obnoxious Day and the menacing Quinto chew the scenery with a complete lack of restraint—which would be fine if they were actually fun to watch, or given anything interesting to do. Neither is. As for Foster, she works hard, but even she can’t do much with what is essentially a caricature.
Presumably Pearce was after a giddy John Carpenter vibe, something along the lines of “Escape from New York.” But all he’s managed to achieve is a desire for an escape of a different sort—from the theatre, as quickly as possible.