The Little Things

★★★★

Denzel Washington is one of the best actors of his or any other generation. He’s that rare performer who’s equal parts actor and movie star. Washington has been accused of almost always playing himself. He does often play the smartest and coolest cat in the room, but when you’re as convincing at it as Washington is, you can hardly blame him. Such is the case with “The Little Things” – now available in theaters and on HBO Max through Sunday Feb. 28.

Washington stars as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a disgraced Los Angeles detective who defected to becoming a sheriff’s deputy in rural Kern County, California after a case went sideways. He’s called back to the City of Angels by Captain Henry Davis (Glenn Morshower) to retrieve evidence for a case they’re working. While there Deke makes contact with his former-partner-turned-Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department Captain Carl Farris (Terry Kinney), former colleague and friend Detective Sal Rizoli (Chris Bauer – Andy Bellefleur 4 lyfe!) and the man who filled his post – Detective Jim “Jimmy” Baxter (Rami Malek). Jimmy’s working a series of murders and disappearances that bear a strong resemblance to the case that got Deke ousted from the LASD. Despite their initial trepidations, Deke and Jimmy team to solve the case. Their primary suspect is skeevy appliance repairman Albert Sparma (Jared Leto).

There isn’t a ton of action in “The Little Things” – it’s a slow burn that’s primarily a psychological thriller. At its heart it’s a three-hander that sports capable performances from Washington, Malek and Leto. Washington could play Deke in his sleep, but by no means sleepwalks through the picture like some of his contemporaries might’ve. The dude elicited a huge laugh from me by simply kicking some mulch. I feel as if Malek was kinda miscast as Jimmy – he sorta alternates between looking like a little kid and a Chihuahua – but he’s a good enough actor that he not only sells the role but is also able to stand toe-to-toe with Washington … no small feat. I suppose I just buy Malek more as Freddie Mercury than I do as a detective. I’ve traditionally been mixed on Leto, but he’s arguably the most impressive of this talented trio here. He adopts dark contact lenses, facial prosthetics and a gait that’s reminiscent of Vincent D’Onofrio’s as Edgar in “Men in Black.” If Leto sent used condoms through the mail to his “Suicide Squad” castmates in order to embody the Joker’s headspace, I’d hate to think of what lengths he went to in playing Sparma. I’d also like to single out actress Michael Hyatt for props since she does wonders in a supporting performance as a coroner who does Deke a serious solid.

Appropriately enough “The Little Things” takes place in 1990, which makes sense as it’s a throwback to the serial killer flicks that dominated the decade. (For the record, it was also penned by writer/director John Lee Hancock in 1990 and at one time had the likes of Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty and Danny DeVito attached to direct.) It doesn’t reach the heights of David Fincher’s “Seven,” but it’s better than any of Washington’s other efforts in the subgenre from that era, i.e. “Virtuosity,” “Fallen” and “The Bone Collector.” The period setting doesn’t factor in considerably otherwise aside from the makes and models of cars characters drive and a lack of cell phones that helps fill plot holes.  

The Night

★★★

I reckon I’d never seen an Iranian horror movie prior to peeping “The Night” (available on VOD and in select theaters beginning Friday, Jan. 29). I always meant to see “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” but never got around to it.

Baback (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) are a married Iranian couple living with their baby daughter Shabnam (Leah Oganyan) in the United States. After visiting friends for the evening, Baback insists that he must drive them home despite being drunk because Neda’s license is suspended. As Baback’s driving worsens placing the family in a progressively precarious position, Neda demands that they stop and get a hotel room for the night so he can sleep it off. Baback complies.

Upon arrival they encounter a strange hotel receptionist (George Maguire). He rents them a suite – supposedly the only unoccupied room. The receptionist also informs them that the hotel’s front door is locked from the inside and that they must be buzzed out to exit. No sooner do Baback, Neda and Shabnam get settled in the suite and begin sleeping that strange noises echo out through the night and disturbances arise. There’s a persistent knocking at their door from a young boy (Amir Ali Hosseini) looking for his mother, but when they answer the door there’s no one there. The hotel has a grip on the family and they’re trapped within its confines unless Baback and Neda confess secrets they’ve kept from one another.

I thought highly of Hosseini and Noor’s performances even if I didn’t particularly care for their characters. (Baback’s a bit of a boor and Neda’s sort of a nag.)  Hosseini looks like a cross between Kal Penn and Mark Duplass and excels at playing the gray areas of the moral spectrum. Noor’s lovely and expertly emotes fear. I suspect there are cultural differences at play, but I didn’t dig the way these characters interacted with one another. Then again relationships in horror movies are rarely full of love and light.

“The Night” is a horror movie that’s not horrifying, but it’s often creepy. This is cinema of agitation and irritation. Writer/director Kourosh Ahari and his co-screenwriter Milad Jarmooz do a nice job of establishing dread, but their jolts often grow repetitive and are stretched to their absolute limits. The movie’s an hour and 45 minutes – it would’ve played better at an hour and a half. Neda’s secret will likely offend folks on either side of the political aisle for divergent reasons. The secret itself didn’t bother me, but the punishment doled out to her as a result did.

I ultimately liked more about “The Night” than I didn’t. I certainly think it’s wonderful that it’s the first U.S./Iran co-production to receive a license for release in Iran since the revolution. Additionally, it’s cool that the predominance of the cast and crew (including department heads) is comprised of Iranian immigrants or U.S.-born Iranian-Americans. Even when art doesn’t click on all cylinders it has the power to bring people from disparate backgrounds together. Also, the baby’s awfully adorable as numerous characters assert … so there’s that.

Haymaker

★★★

If you ever wanted to see a cross between “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” and “The Bodyguard” with a dash of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic flourishes thrown in for good measure then “Haymaker” (available on VOD and in select theaters beginning Friday Jan. 29) could very much be your particular bag.

Nick (Nick Sasso) is a retired Muay Thai fighter who’s working as a New York City-based bouncer. One night he jumps to the defense of talented transgender songstress Nomi (Nomi Ruiz) who’s being attacked by an overzealous fan (Olan Montgomery) in her dressing room. Nick knocks the snot outta the stalker, which results in him getting canned as the creep is a friend of the club. Nomi, impressed by Nick’s skills and feeling as if she owes him, hires Nick as her personal bodyguard. Nomi and Nick travel the world from Los Angeles to Greece for her tour where romantic feelings begin to blossom and inspiration strikes for his return to the ring.

This is obviously a passion project for Sasso who not only stars but also serves as writer, producer, lead special effects artist, editor and director. He shows more promise as a filmmaker than he does as an actor. His acting is a bit wooden, but he performs admirably in the fight sequences. Sasso’s performance is elevated by Ruiz’s work. She’s attractive and alluring here – you get why Nick would be drawn to her even if it’s counterintuitive to your own preferences. Ruiz also excels in performing a series of musical numbers. I credit Sasso for not making a big deal out of Ruiz’s sexual identity. It’s addressed but rarely stigmatized – these two simply relate to one another on a human level. Sasso also smartly surrounds himself and Ruiz (both relatively inexperienced actors) with more seasoned performers such as Zoë Bell (the veteran stuntwoman also serves as stunt coordinator and second unit director), D.B. Sweeney, Udo Kier and John Ventimiglia (best known as Artie Bucco from “The Sopranos”) who help sell the material.

There are decisions that Sasso makes (especially as an editor – the introduction of Nick’s final opponent is particularly “WTF”-inducing) that are flummoxing and occasionally read as amateurish. He may have spread himself thin by taking on too many tasks. In spite of this “Haymaker” often comes across as bigger and more assured than its obviously meager budget would generally suggest. The picture has a worldly quality having filmed in the aforementioned New York, Los Angeles and Greece along with a picturesque and personality-lending pit stop in Thailand. Sasso despite stumbling into some pitfalls that plague first-time filmmakers and multi-hyphenates (this could easily be seen as a vanity project) ultimately achieves a great deal with limited means and runtime (a mere 83 minutes). He could be one to watch.

Brothers by Blood

★★★

“Brothers by Blood” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) is based off of Pete Dexter’s 1991 novel “Brotherly Love,” but sorta feels like “Baby’s First Mob Movie.” It’s all so rudimentary, there’s so much posturing, there’s so much telling as opposed to showing and it permeates a distinct been there, done that vibe. In spite of all this, the picture does contain some commendable elements and I give it a marginal recommendation.

“Brothers by Blood” bounces back and forth between 1999 (looking more like 1974) and 2016. Cousins Peter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael (Joel Kinnaman) are members of the Irish Mob based out of Philadelphia like their fathers (Peter’s is played by Ryan Phillippe in flashback) before them. Young Peter (Nicholas Crovetti) is scarred when he witnesses his sister (Grace Bilik) get struck and killed by an oncoming car. Their mother has a total mental breakdown. Their father seeks and gets vengeance, which in turn costs him his own life. Peter then goes to live with Michael and his parents.

In the world of “Brothers by Blood” we know it’s 2016 and that Michael’s not a good guy because a Donald Trump campaign speech is playing on a TV in the background and Michael says, “I’d vote for him.” Michael’s most assuredly not a good dude as evidenced by a harrowing sequence wherein he threatens a veterinarian with his own lethal needle. Peter begrudgingly reports to Michael in the mob hierarchy out of familial obligation. You get the impression Peter would rather focus on boxing as he’s especially protective of the gym he works out at, its owner and a promising young fighter who also trains there.

Peter’s care and concern also extends to he and Michael’s mutual friend Jimmy (Paul Schneider) as well as to Jimmy’s younger sister Grace (Maika Monroe), for whom Peter develops romantic feelings.  Peter warns Jimmy against borrowing money from Michael for his restaurant where Grace tends bar. Peter’s advice isn’t heeded and Michael comes to collect aggressively after Jimmy’s place is burnt to the ground as the result of beef between Michael and Italian boss Bono (Antoni Corone). Additionally, Bono offers Peter the opportunity to clip Michael and take his seat at the table.

French writer/director Jérémie Guez (best known for writing and producing the surprisingly assured recent Jean-Claude Van Damme effort “The Bouncer”) does as well with this well-worn material as he likely could. The movie runs a slight 89 minutes. Rumors have suggested the picture was tinkered with and repeated mentions of a character named Constantine who never materializes seem to confirm as much.

To Guez’s credit, he coaxes some solid performances from his cast despite them not being the most natural fit for their roles. Schoenaerts is easily the standout of the bunch. While he doesn’t talk much, he conveys everything the viewer needs to know about Peter via facial expressions and body language. Kinnaman excels as well. The casting of these actors is interesting – I probably wouldn’t have selected a Belgian and a Swede to play Irish-American cousins, but their Philly accents are convincing enough. The fact that Schoenaerts and Kinnaman swap types – Schoenaerts is often the wild card whereas Kinnaman usually plays upright do-gooders – proves an interesting experiment as well.

Schneider is an actor I’ve always liked who seemed to work far more frequently 10 to 15 years ago, which makes his presence here a welcome one. He brings some much needed levity to these dour proceedings. Monroe too is a performer I admire. I’m a fan of hers on the basis of “The Guest” and “It Follows” alone. She’s fine in the movie, but her casting in the picture is curious. Schneider is 44, Schoenaerts is 43, Kinnaman is 41 and Monroe is 27. Monroe reads as more mature than her age, but it’s laughable when you hear these actors exchanging dialogue about growing up together. To that point, it’s also absurd to think that Schoenaerts’ Peter was 9 in 1999 or 26 in 2016.

If you go into “Brothers by Blood” expecting something on the level of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese’s forays into crime films you’re gonna be profoundly disappointed. This reads more along the lines of a watered-down Diet Dennis Lehane adaptation, but the cast will nudge you across the finish line … they certainly did me. I dug the movie enough that I intend to check out Guez’s feature directorial debut “A Bluebird in My Heart” on Shudder sometime sooner as opposed to later.

PG: Psycho Goreman

★★★★

“PG: Psycho Goreman” (available on VOD beginning Friday, Jan. 22) is an absolute blast! The movie, which most assuredly isn’t for all tastes (but is arguably for all ages), plays like a mixture of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and Peter Jackson’s early output.

Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her older brother Luke (Owen Myre) spend their days playing Crazy Ball, a game of their own creation. Despite being younger and a girl, Mimi mercilessly bullies Luke. After he loses their latest game of Crazy Ball, Mimi forces Luke to dig a deep hole in their backyard where he’ll purportedly have to sleep as punishment. It’s in this hole that the tyke twosome discover the Gem of Praxidike, which unleashes our titular antihero.

Their discovery is a nameless creature from the planet Gigax (a nod to late Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax) so the kiddos dub him Psycho Goreman (played by Matthew Ninabar and voiced by Steven Vlahos) – PG for short. If PG had his druthers he’d skin these scamps alive, but so long as Mimi retains the stone he must do as she says. Unfortunately, Mimi’s a bit of a brat and her biddings have consequences.

PG is simultaneously being hunted by Pandora (played by Kristen MacCulloch and voiced by Anna Tierney) for crimes he’s perpetrated across the galaxy. Also embroiled in the chaos are Mimi and Luke’s friend Alastair (Scout Flint) and their folks – the exasperated Susan (Alexis Kara Hancey) and the profoundly lazy Greg (Adam Brooks, sorta reading like Randy Marsh of “South Park”).

“PG: Psycho Goreman” is written, edited, produced and directed by Steven Kostanski (“The Void,” “Leprechaun Returns”), a member of the Canadian film collective Astron-6 (“Manborg,” “Father’s Day” (the 2011 one – not the Robin Williams/Billy Crystal joint), “The Editor”) of which Brooks is also a member.  If you’re familiar with these dudes’ work, you know they’re utterly demented.

Kostanski really nails the tonal tightrope this time out however. Aside from a few swears early in the picture and an onslaught of violence throughout (PG decapitates numerous folks, vaporizes a child and removes a foe’s spine in order to forge a sword out of it), “PG: Psycho Goreman” could actually be PG. This is a children’s movie at its core. There’s very little sexual content aside from PG liking to look at pics of hunky guys in magazine ads. These kids don’t cuss. They instead say stuff like hecking and frig and actually break into a “Kids Incorporated”-esque musical number at one point. There are also sweet messages concerning forgiveness and the importance of family. I’m not a parent, but I’d have no issue showing “PG: Psycho Goreman” to children who aren’t gore adverse. If I were 11 this would probably be one of my favorite movies and more so it made this 39-year-old man feel 11 again watching it … and that ain’t a bad thing. He’s not as inspiring as Amanda Gorman, but there’s more than enough room in my heart for Psycho Goreman.

Ten Minutes to Midnight

★★1/2

Vampires are undoubtedly my favorite movie monsters. I watched “The Lost Boys” and “From Dusk till Dawn” (which celebrates its 25th anniversary today!) countless times as a teenager. “Let the Right One In” is my second favorite horror film of all-time. My interest is always piqued when another vampire flick comes down the pike. Therefore I leapt at the opportunity to review “Ten Minutes to Midnight” (now available on VOD), the latest entry in the suckhead subgenre.

In a tip of the cap to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2,” Caroline Williams essentially reprises the role of Stretch (only aged 35 years) as late-night radio host Amy Marlowe. Amy arrives to work at WLST on a stormy night after having been bit in the neck by a bat. Unbeknownst to Amy, this will be her last night at WLST as station manager Robert (William Youmans, he played Bartender in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”) plans on replacing her with the younger Sienna (Nicole Kang, a regular on the CW’s “Batwoman”) in exchange for implied sexual favors. Everyone – including Amy’s producer Aaron (Adam Weppler) and the station’s security guard Ernie (the late Nicholas Tucci, best known for “You’re Next”) – knew Amy’s head was on the chopping block, but didn’t have the decency to tell her. As the night continues hostilities rise and a transformation takes place.

“Ten Minutes to Midnight” is yet another modern horror film that embraces the 1980s what with its synth-y score and its stylistic title card. It’s not the best of the bunch by any stretch, but contains several elements worthy of praise. The movie manages to pack interesting commentary concerning time, mortality, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity and severed sisterhood into its scant 73 minute runtime. For a flick with a miniscule budget, the makeup effects are often impressive (Kudos to makeup department head Amanda Pepin!) and there are some cool metal needle drops. The acting can occasionally read as amateurish, but I was impressed by Williams, who I’m reappraising after seeing her in the recent horror doc “In Search of Darkness” (Seriously, this lady gives great talking head.). She runs the whole gamut of emotions.

I almost feel as though “Ten Minutes to Midnight” would’ve been better as a short or lengthened to a longer feature that could further extrapolate on its themes. Writers Erik and Carson Bloomquist make the decision to have all the actors switch roles save for Williams three-quarters of the way through the picture. I can’t entirely say what purpose this served (unlike the aspect ratio changes that convey different times periods), but it’s interesting.

“Ten Minutes to Midnight” isn’t as entertaining as the similarly-titled 1983 Cannon Films joint “10 to Midnight” since Charles Bronson isn’t screaming, “It’s for JACKING OFF!,” at somebody, but it does depict Williams’ Amy eating a used tampon out of a trash receptacle … so there’s that. I don’t regret watching it once, but I’ll likely return to “The Lost Boys,” “From Dusk till Dawn” and “Let the Right One In” to sate my bloodsucker thirst moving forward.

Outside the Wire

★★★

“Outside the Wire” is Netflix’s latest attempt to play in the big budget sandbox traditionally dominated by major studios following “Extraction” and “The Old Guard” last year. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of those efforts, but certainly has commendable attributes of its own.

It’s 2036 in Eastern Europe. Lieutenant Thomas Harp (the likable Damson Idris of “Snowfall”) is a drone pilot who’s almost court-martialed after disobeying a direct order that saves the lives of 38 Marines while killing two others. Harp’s instead assigned to Leo (Anthony Mackie) so he can learn the value of human life and the importance of boots on the ground. Ironically, Leo’s a cyborg. Leo’s convincing enough in conveying humanity that no one knows his secret except for Harp and the base’s commander Eckhart (“House of Cards” vet Michael Kelly).

This pairing of a man who thinks like a robot and a robot who longs to be a man proves interesting. The duo are in pursuit of a terrorist named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who’s hell-bent on unleashing Russia’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. There’s plenty of extrapersonal and combat-related strife along the way.

Much of what works about “Outside the Wire” is attributable to its action and world-building. Serving alongside humans are robotic soldiers referred to as “Gumps” because they’re stupid-looking. They’re convincingly rendered and lend the proceedings considerable blockbuster heft. Mackie is also a certifiable badass as Leo. He’s allowed to engage in much more practical stunt work here by comparison to his efforts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of this feels like playing a video game as opposed to watching someone else play a video game, which I mean as both a compliment and an insult. My ultimate preference is that movies feel like movies.

Now for the negative: There’s a twist that takes place a little over halfway through “Outside the Wire,” which really took me out of the picture and almost entirely removed whatever charm it had going for it. Much is made of Asbæk’s Koval character, but he ultimately proves to be little more than a cool intro and a McGuffin. I know this dude can chew scenery as evidenced by 2018’s “Overlord” and his turn as Euron Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones.” I wish the filmmakers had allowed him to eat!

The work of Swedish director Mikael Håfström (“Escape Plan”) is unsurprisingly workmanlike. It’s kind of bland, but better than much of his filmography (i.e. “Derailed,” “1408”) in my estimation. The screenplay by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe feels like it could use another draft and ultimately does a major disservice to Leo. (I’m surprised Mackie would let this fly as he’s a producer on the picture. Then again, there could be a substantial differential between the movie Mackie wanted to make and the one I wanted to watch?) Much of the video game feel probably stems from Yescombe’s time spent writing video games such as “Rambo: The Video Game” and “Tom Clancy’s The Division.”

“Outside the Wire” while entertaining seems a tad confused. Like almost all war movies it’s anti-war, but it also seems to be advocating for the retention of the human element in combat. This seems somewhat counterintuitive to its overall message. The enterprise feels like “Training Day” meets “The Terminator” with a dash of drone pics “Eye in the Sky” and “Good Kill” thrown in for good measure. It’s often successful in aping these other projects, but seems to lack a voice of its own.

The Marksman

★★★1/2

Co-writer/director Robert Lorenz should’ve known he was on the right track because his latest film shares a title with a Wesley Snipes direct-to-video offering from 2005. “The Marksman” (now playing in theaters) is the latest in a long string of Liam Neeson action flicks spurred from 2009’s “Taken” … except it’s not.

Don’t let the advertisements and title fool you – “The Marksman” is far more of a drama with action accents as opposed to the other way around. Chicago native Lorenz has spent the majority of his career assistant directing and producing most of Clint Eastwood’s output from the past 25 years. (This after having served as second assistant director on the Vanilla Ice classic “Cool as Ice” – “Drop that zero and get with the hero!”) His sole directorial effort prior to this was the latter day Eastwood baseball vehicle “Trouble with the Curve.” Unsurprisingly, “The Marksman” feels more like an Eastwood entry from 20 to 25 years ago as opposed to a modern day Neeson action epic (Eastwood even cameos via a fuzzy motel TV showing 1968’s “Hang ‘Em High”).

Neeson stars as Jim Hanson, a Marine veteran and rancher on the Arizona/Mexico border who lost his wife to cancer a year prior and is on the precipice of foreclosure. He often encounters illegals crossing the border onto his property. He’ll offer them water if they need it and then promptly call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report them, which prompts visits from his Border Patrol officer stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick).

One day Jim runs across Rosa (Teresa Ruiz of “Narcos: Mexico”) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) who are frantically trying to escape into the United States through an opening in the fence from an attacking cartel faction fronted by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba, a veteran of OG “Narcos”). Rosa and Miguel are fleeing since Miguel’s Uncle Carlos (Alfredo Quiroz) stole a substantial amount of money from the cartel and the outfit wants to make an example out of the entire family.

Jim intercedes on Rosa and Miguel’s behalf. Shots are fired by both sides. Jim shoots and kills Mauricio’s brother. Rosa is also struck and ultimately succumbs to her wound, but not before she gives Jim a backpack full of money and pleads with him to transport Miguel to Chicago where they have family. Jim waffles for a bit, but ultimately decides taking Miguel to Chicago is in the boy’s best interest and if he can profit in the process, all the better. The duo hit the road where they’ll have to evade Sarah and other authorities as well as Mauricio and his men.

There’s a lot to like about “The Marksman” despite much of it being pretty pat. Neeson is a pro and could play this role in his sleep, Perez is a cute kid for whom the audience can easily root and they have a natural, easy chemistry. While there isn’t much action, what’s here is serviceable and some of it’s even jolting. The enterprise as a whole is sadder than I expected it to be (there’s that Eastwood influence again!), but the gloom lends the proceedings gravitas. You likely already know if this is for you or not. If you dig Neeson’s action output or Eastwood’s overall oeuvre this will likely be in your wheelhouse. If nothing else, it continues the big screen renaissance of Pop-Tarts after “Wonder Woman 1984.”

Locked Down

★★★1/2

Many of us had enough of the pandemic, quarantine and 2020 in 2020. Producer Michael Bay and his co-conspirators had the first cinematic crack at the pandemic in last month’s “Songbird” (my review here). Whereas Bay opted to filter pandemic anxieties through a dramatic thriller spectrum, director Doug Liman and screenwriter Steven Knight have opted to express the same feelings via the romantic dramedy/heist picture “Locked Down” (now available on HBO Max).

The expediency with which Liman and Knight dreamt “Locked Down” up (July 1, 2020), sold it (September), filmed it (by the end of October) and released it (today) is mind-boggling. The movie itself is less so, but it’s better than many would lead you to believe.

Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are a London-based couple on the skids. Their relationship went kaput just as quarantine began, but had been slowly dying for some time. They’re now trapped together in their townhouse with resentments at full boil.

She’s worked her way up the corporate ladder and spends her days begrudgingly firing subordinates. He’s been furloughed from his job as a deliveryman and must sell off his prized Triumph motorcycle in order to kick up some scratch. The bike and the freedom it exemplifies brought the two together initially. Selling it will officially close the door on their relationship.

Further and fatefully complicating matters, Linda is tasked with overseeing a diamond worth three million pounds on display at Harrods department store and Paxton has been commissioned to transport it for sale. The ex-couple conspire to rip off the rock – a million pounds for her, a million pounds for him, a million pounds to the National Health Service. Will the theft bring the former lovers back together or further tear them apart?

A cavalcade of familiar faces turn up to lend support. “Ballers” co-stars Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Simon play Paxton’s half-brother and sister-in-law respectively. Ben Stiller plays Linda’s boss. Ben Kingsley plays Paxton’s boss. Lucy Boynton (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and Mindy Kaling play Linda’s former co-workers. Stephen Merchant plays the Head of Security at Harrods. Most of these folks appear exclusively via Zoom.

I generally dig Liman’s directorial output. He’s a bit of a chameleon tackling comedies (“Swingers” and “Go”), action-thrillers (“The Bourne Identity”) and action-comedies (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) as well as sci-fi (“Looper” and “Edge of Tomorrow”), political (“Fair Game” (2010)), war (“The Wall”) and crime (“American Made”) pictures. “Locked Down” doesn’t feel very akin to Liman’s eclectic oeuvre. It feels more like a play (Granted, “The Wall” could’ve been a play too.) or like a lark Steven Soderbergh might’ve made somewhere along the way. Knight’s script feels like a first draft and it probably was considering the speed with which it was written, but it’s worlds better than Knight’s previous collaboration with Hathaway, 2019’s absolutely fucking bugnuts “Serenity.”

Hathaway and Ejiofor are kinda playing against type here. She chain-smokes cigarettes and is more of a wild child than her perpetual goody two shoes persona would suggest. He’s scruffier, funnier and less a paragon of wisdom and virtue than his characters normally are. Both Linda and Paxton are irritating at times (probably an offshoot of the subject matter), but they’re inherently watchable due to the talented actors portraying them.

Mileage will likely vary with these COVID-19 movies in the months and years to come. I liked “Songbird” more than most and that appears to be the case with “Locked Down” as well. This might have something to do with 2020 having been better to me than it was to most, which doesn’t mean I don’t have sympathy for those who’ve lost their lives, loved ones, jobs and businesses along the way. Sure, I was furloughed and ultimately laid off from my job, but that allowed me to focus my time and energy into pursuits that are far more enjoyable and rewarding. The first few months of quarantine are some of the happiest of my lifetime – I was able to slow down, to pause, to enjoy time with my wife and dog, to reflect and realize how truly fortunate I really am. I think these movies aren’t about dwelling in the past, but are more so hopeful for our collective future.

Redemption Day

★★1/2

Moroccan producer-turned-writer/director Hicham Hajji makes his feature directorial debut with “Redemption Day” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Jan. 8) – an action-thriller that’s somewhat lacking in action and certainly lacking in thrills. It’s attempting to tackle the oil industry’s role in worldwide strife and does so dryly to some extent. It’s not smart enough to be “Syriana” nor is it dumb enough to be “Commando” or “Taken.”

Gary Dourdan of “Alien: Resurrection” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” stars as decorated Marine Brad Paxton. He returns home to his archaeologist wife Kate (Serinda Swan of the ill-fated “Inhumans” and HBO’s “Ballers”), young daughter Clair (Lilia Hajji – I’m guessing she’s Hicham’s little girl?) and boxing trainer father Ed (the always welcome Ernie Hudson) to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Paxton’s also been “gifted” a particularly nasty case of PTSD.

While it’s not a convenient time for her to leave, Kate’s been commissioned to excavate an underground city she’s discovered on the Morocco/Algeria border. Predictably, she and her cohorts are either kidnapped or killed by an upstart Algerian terrorist cell led by Jaafar El Hadi (Samy Naceri from Luc Besson’s “Taxi” flicks and kinda lookin’ like Jeffrey Epstein here). Paxton packs his shit and is on the first plane to Morocco where he teams with secret service agent Younes Laalej (Brice Bexter). By hook or by crook Paxton’s getting his wife back. Also tangled up in this quagmire are Ambassador Williams (Andy Garcia, mostly acting through his cigar), shadowy CIA operative Tom Fitzgerald (Martin Donovan, kinda typecast in this sorta role by this point) and a mysterious oil lobbyist (“Prison Break” ham Robert Knepper adopting white hair, white suit and a Col. Sanders accent).

Dourdan has an interesting presence. I only ever watched the two Quentin Tarantino-directed episodes of “CSI,” so I haven’t seen the bulk of his work. Dourdan’s simultaneously handsome and sort of weird-looking. He looks like a cat who’d play Janet Jackson’s boyfriend in a music video (he did) or sing backup vocals for Macy Gray (he has). He’s arguably a tad old at 54 to be playing this part, but he’s built like a brick shithouse and is convincing enough in action. Swan is a beautiful woman and does well enough servicing what’s ultimately a fairly thankless damsel in distress archetype. Naceri and Bexter are also serviceable in their respective villain and sidekick roles. It’s kind of disappointing that actors of the caliber and notoriety of Hudson, Garcia, Donovan and Knepper (who’s essentially cameoing) are saddled with nothingburger parts.

“Redemption Day” begins and concludes strongly enough, but the middle is made up of tedious driving scenes and obvious exposition dumps. What action there is occasionally impresses (Paxton sniping four terrorists with four rapid, successive headshots; Paxton and Laalej stealthily sneaking around the terrorist base headshotting fools with silenced pistols calls to mind the “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell” video games), but there’s also an explosion during the finale that’s laughably fake. The door’s left wide open for a sequel – I’m open to it if the filmmakers embrace the dumb, get a bigger budget and give Knepper plenty of scenery to chew … that would redeem ‘em.