With his directorial debut “Hotel Artemis,” screenwriter Drew Pearce (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” and “Iron Man 3”) claims “I didn’t want to make a movie that was OK for everyone; I wanted to make a film that was one person’s favorite movie.”
Pearce made that one person out of me — during the film’s first half. And although “Hotel Artemis’” second half is hampered by elements of familiarity and is more enjoyable in piecemeal than as a whole, it still carries enough of the first half’s momentum to make for a thrilling movie and an intriguing thinkpiece on redemption for even the worst of criminals.
Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles in the year 2028 (coincidentally, the same year LA is slated to host the Summer Olympics), the streets overrun with rioting and retaliatory police brutality due to the city’s privatization of its water supply, the Hotel Artemis operates as an exclusive hospital for injured criminals run by a cantankerous septuagenarian who simply goes by “Nurse” (Jodie Foster, in her first film role since 2013’s “Elysium”). The hotel operates under three very strict rules: 1) no entry without paying your membership dues, 2) no cops, and 3) no harming other patients on the premises.
With its grimy yet vivid wallpaper and highly advanced technology (for instance, Nurse uses the hotel’s 3D printer to “print out” a healthy liver for a transplant), the Artemis serves as a fascinating microcosm of the transgressions of our world.
It’s also a lesson on how sin, in one way or another, can entrap us all. Nurse, for one, first agreed to run the hospital 20-plus years ago after her battles with alcoholism left her with no other opportunities to practice medicine. Her orderly/enforcer is the brutish but kindhearted Everest (Dave Bautista), whose undying loyalty to Nurse and the rules of the hotel is a prime example of the blind being led by the blind.
As for the hotel’s current patients, all of whom adopt the name of the suite they’re staying in for the sake of anonymity, there’s elitist arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day), a classic one-percenter who barks obnoxious, oblivious complaints like, “Why don’t all the rioters shut their mouths and pay for their water like everyone else?” Then there’s the French femme fatale/assassin-for-hire Nice (Sofia Boutella), who justifies her criminal ways with the mantra: “You can’t help what you’re good at.”
And brand new to the hotel, fresh off of a botched bank heist, are Waikiki (a dynamic Sterling K. Brown), who has returned to his criminal ways after a long, intentional hiatus, and his severely wounded brother/partner in crime Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry), who we get the sense has gotten Waikiki into several prior pickles just like this one.
In what may be the film’s most interesting exchange, Waikiki explains to Nurse, “I thought I was out of the game,” to which Nurse retorts, “And yet, you kept paying your membership dues.”
That sounds like a pretty sober take on the grim toll that sin takes on people, including those who’d like to escape it.
The film’s thematic strengths, however, get put on hold in favor of plot when Nurse breaks her own rule by admitting a wounded cop named Morgan (Jenny Slate), who, it turns out, was a childhood friend of Nurse’s son Bo, the victim of a fatal drug overdose years ago. Morgan’s arrival cues a ramping up of Nurse’s flashbacks of her son and musings on the trauma of losing a child, none of which feels particularly artistic or necessary.
But the proceedings are then reinvigorated by the arrival of The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum, in a delicious turn that deserves far more screen time than a cameo), the LA kingpin who established the Artemis and who virtually runs the city. His presence, along with that of his son (Zachary Quinto), who’s overly eager to earn dad’s approval, poses a threat in one way or another to all the other residents, thus introducing the question of who gets to leave the hotel? Or in other words, how do you free yourself from the lifestyle that the Artemis invites?
Unfortunately, “Hotel Artemis” proceeds to tackle that question more through Hong Kong style cinema-influenced fight sequences than through critical thinking. And though these action sequences are admittedly enthralling, the result is an undercooked grand finale that had the potential to overwhelm, but instead elicits a modest “that’ll do” from the audience.
Still, the film deserves a great deal of credit for balancing its effervescent tone with its intense action and its darkly nuanced themes. Much like rehab for an addict, Hotel Artemis represents a rock bottom moment for people in desperate need of change. The question of how to ensure that you never have to “check back in” is a challenging and worthwhile one, even if the answer isn’t fully realized here.
“It’s just another Wednesday night at the Artemis,” offers Nurse, almost proudly, throughout the night as things become more and more chaotic. But this is not just another night at the movies; “Hotel Artemis” is unlike anything you’ll see this summer blockbuster season. And it establishes Pearce as a directorial force who, with time, might just be capable of making everyone’s favorite movie.