It seems the hottest new trend in action movies is bureaucracy. The base desires of assassins, thieves, and gangsters are yesterday’s news, their gun-toting antics mere grist for the story mill. What audiences really care about is the infrastructure around those pulpy antiheroes. At least, that’s the lesson Hotel Artemis appears to have taken away from films like the hugely successful John Wick series. It’s an action movie that’s far more interested in world-building than it is in gunplay, a genre flick that derives its greatest pleasures from explaining the funny ways in which its universe works.
Though it’s not quite as delightful as it may sound, the writer-director Drew Pearce deserves some credit—he’s made a fun summer watch with a wonderful cast and a script that has nothing to do with existing franchises, popular books, or rebootable media properties. Hotel Artemis is an airy, silly 94 minutes at the movies that could stand to be even airier and sillier. This gritty sci-fi film sets out the rules of its world elegantly, but when the action finally does kick off in the last act, the emotional stakes are oddly flat—a problem that John Wick never had.
The hotel of the title is a run-down establishment in a grim near-future Los Angeles, a city beset with riots over the privatization of its water supply. As angry citizens gather in the streets, some of L.A’s most notorious criminals retire to the penthouse of an old hotel that’s been repurposed as a hospital. The place is run by Nurse Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster), a cantankerous, no-nonsense type who patches up the lawless denizens of her makeshift facility—as long as their membership dues are paid in full. Pearce’s film follows one long, crazy night at the Artemis as L.A. devolves into chaos, though the events indoors never really sync up with what’s happening on the streets.
That’s one of the many missed opportunities here: the waste of a near-future setting, which exists mostly to explain away anything that doesn’t make sense about the Artemis. Why don’t cops ever knock on its steel doors? How can Jean afford such a fancy location? Where did she get a 3-D printer that can work up a new liver for you in a jiffy? Don’t worry about it—it’s the future. Pearce, who made his bones in Hollywood co-writing blockbusters like Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, knows how to dress his world up nicely. But there isn’t much to it beyond that surface sheen.
Stuck in the hotel with Jean are a bunch of guests named after their rooms, each of which is decked out with peeling murals of vacation destinations. There’s Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown), a talented bank robber saddled with a screw-up of a brother (Brian Tyree Henry) who got wounded during a recent score. There’s Nice (Sofia Boutella), a cold-blooded assassin who has a romantic history with Waikiki. There’s Acapulco (Charlie Day), a grumpy arms dealer who’s taken one too many bumps of cocaine for the night. And en route, there’s the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum), the city’s biggest crime boss, whom each character has a different reason to be afraid of.
Pearce swirls all these fun elements (every actor is giving a loose, goofy performance) together in his cocktail shaker, also adding Zachary Quinto as the Wolf King’s impetuous son and Dave Bautista as Jean’s heavyset bodyguard, Everest. But the results are disappointingly bland. The look of Hotel Artemis is terrific—the sets are faded but still colorful, resplendent with grimy detail, and the little touches of future-tech all integrate very smoothly.
It’s too bad the plot itself is undercooked. Part of the thrill of John Wick, which also revolves around an exclusive hotel for assassins, is the intricacy of its universe, and the satisfying way its internal logic works. But that series is driven by emotional storytelling, centered on a character with an intense, painful, and personal mission. Hotel Artemis tries to give some of its characters backstories, as well—there are plenty of cheesy flashbacks to Jean’s tragic life before she opened her business—but the effort feels rote and hollow.
In the third act, as the various villainous archetypes begin picking sides against one another and the madness engulfing the city threatens to also consume the hotel, I expected the film to ramp up the energy. But Hotel Artemis’s action choreography turns out to be pretty limited. Pearce instead starts throwing out more information about the backstories he’s built up, which end up gumming up the plot instead of driving it. It’s unfortunately anticlimactic; what at first looks like a potential cult classic becomes a movie you might catch on basic cable in a year. Still, there are worse fates.