The directorial debut of Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis displays all of the style of that earlier film’s director Shane Black, and none of his sometimes cloying cleverness. Hotel Artemis is a blessedly simple, brutally elegant creature, a cinematic bottle-episode in the life of The Nurse (Jodie Foster), an elderly woman who’s clearly seen far too much in her life to exhibit anything more than pragmatic indifference about anything that comes her way. A temperature which is true of the film’s titular location, and, by way of approximation, the film itself. Written and directed by Pearce with a sense of suggestion and screenwriting economy unheard of for a summer genre film in the era of 2 ½ blockbusters, this is an abnormally – dare I say heroically? – straightforward production.
And a defiantly un-visionary one, exclusively dedicated to workaday problems and everyday struggles in the lives of criminals in Los Angeles, only ever-so-slightly refracted by a “15 minutes into the future” aesthetic that is much more thoughtfully quotidian and less obnoxiously conceptual than Black Mirror. Hotel Artemis introduces us to two career criminals, brothers played by Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, the latter of whom is shot, prompting both to go to the titular Hotel, a kind of no-questions-asked medical bay for criminals who have memberships. Run by Foster’s Nurse and her towering assistant Everest, played by Dave Bautista as a tragic-comic fanatic who worships the hotel’s rules with a devotional fervor, the Hotel admits the brothers, but they are far from the only visitors that night
Everest and the Nurse certainly qualify as the most textured characters, both obviously haunted by past choices and unable to escape them or carve any path out of the narrow corridor of their existence. But there are many others, enough that Hotel Artemis eventually feels like a schlubby, pulp-infested take on a Robert Altman picture, in particular the similarly LA set Short Cuts. But while that film was a centrifugal exploration in horizontal, associative storytelling, Hotel Artemis is laser-focused and largely centripetal – everything and everyone, via bad chance and perverse accident, converges at the Hotel. In addition to Brown and Henry, named Waikiki and Honolulu (for the rooms they stay in at the hotel), the other two visitors for the night are high-class assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella) and Acapulco (Charlie Day), a vicious and viciously entitled guy who embodies and caricaturizes all the worst tendencies of white male victim mentality. So far, so good, until the night gets rough when The Nurse goes against her code and admits a wounded police officer (Jenny Slate), and the overlord of LA crime The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) arrives with a wound needing cleaning, and an itchy son (Zachary Quinto) in tow who wants to prove his competency to daddy dearest, violently if necessary.
Oh, and Honolulu took something that, unbeknownst to him, belongs to the Wolf-King, and which – as is a surprise to no one watching – he wants back. Convolutions arise, but Pearce never aggrandizes his own writing or over-determines his twists. Nor does he belabor his aesthetics. His style if off-the-cuff, and he plays everything lightly but not superficially, as though the characters are aware of the graveness of their situation but too economical, too functionary, and too self-aware to treat it like the second coming of Christ. Albeit slightly dystopic in its intimations of outside society, there’s no apocalypticism in Pearce’s writing, no sense that he has to demonstrate how important his narrative or his characters are, how world-defining their night will be for anyone but themselves.
Even more fulfilling, and kindred in spirit, is the style: unhindered by pretension and gloriously, functionally fatigued. Think John Wick with the hyper-consciously aestheticized Continental quality of, well, the Continental Hotel, garroted by the grungy, barely-held-together vibe of a ‘70s B-movie with none of the free-time to curate its locations or aesthetics with Wick’s self-aggrandizing elegance. Much as I like the Keanu Reeves vehicles, Artemis feels like the rusty, shaggy B-side to John Wick’s excessively baroque, hyper-consciously conspiratorial, deliberately overproduced A-picture vision of a hotel for assassins. There’s an appealingly coarse brutality and bareness to Hotel Artemis, as if the narrative, let alone the characters, can’t afford the time to stop and gawk at a world falling apart. When the climactic brawl closes the film in cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s crimson lighting, it’s less a ballet of red than a psychotropic fever dream, a lurid frenzy of worn-out and beaten-down figures flailing around, violence not as art but as 9-to-5 commitment.
The lurking problem, of course, is that all of this is almost astonishingly (in fact, one could say blissfully) superficial, and that it doesn’t amount to much (although it’s decidedly off-hand ability to sketch a wider social crisis is much appreciated, as is its surprisingly sly way of insinuating more about its characters than they ever reveal). Well-executed superficiality is, of course, a problem to consider for any individual viewer, but for this film-goer, I’ll never tire of this kind of gloriously tossed-off cinema.