John Stockwell‘s movies as a director pop and fizzle like the sensation of opening a soda can. He’s focused primarily, almost cynically, on the youth market, with films like “Blue Crush” and “Turistas” exploring the exoticism of sensual, almost exclusively American youthful exuberance. Unfortunately, the budgets and grosses have shrunk, and Stockwell finds himself on the periphery of a filmmaking culture, as someone who makes punchy cinematic candy that no one wants to consume.
As such, the Montenegro-set “Cat Run” serves as a change of pace, offering Stockwell a chance to reinvent himself as an action filmmaker. Instead of the usual plot involving young people discovering their identities, “Cat Run” is a multi-strand crime comedy with a manic energy and a near-desperate need-to-please that suggests the film may not be long for theaters, though people who watch Spike TV at 1 AM will have the time of their lives.
Anthony and Julian, our leading men, are two post-graduate underachievers, reunited in Spain under unexplained random circumstances. They decide to pool their resources (one is a brainiac type, the other is… black) and form a private detective agency. Despite being lifelong friends, there isn’t much chemistry between the actors. As Anthony, the Brad Pitt-ish Scott Mechlowicz underplays the absurdity of the material to the point of near-absence, allowing the motormouthed Alphonso McAuley to try (and fail) to steal every scene with his manic restlessness. Mechlowicz has worked in indie film, but McAuley is a veteran of fast food commercials, so it’s not a surprise who ends up being more tolerable.
The two quickly end up involved with an elaborate, contrived revenge plot that has Cat (Paz Vega) running for her life. Assassins are in pursuit after she uncovers a tape recording of a mass murder that implicates a randy American politician (Christopher McDonald). In real life, these things get swept under the rug and people get re-elected, but in the movies, they send hitmen after you. Hence, Cat has to deal with a cabal of killers and triggermen while simultaneously searching for her kidnapped baby.
The private detectives are soon recruited to find Cat, under the auspice of a simple missing persons case, only to learn of the web of chaos that entraps them as well. Enter Helen Bingham (Janet McTeer, a highlight), a former MI-6 agent turned hired killer who combines the refined British efficiency of Helen Mirren in “Red” with the elaborate methods of murder you’d see from the Jigsaw character in the “Saw” films. Stockwell is a more imaginative director than “Red” helmer Robert Schwentke, knowing full well he’s helming a cartoon. Where Schwentke would place Mirren behind a machine gun turret, Stockwell has McTeer punt a paraplegic off the ground and into the wall. Advantage: Stockwell.
The biggest strength and weakness is the low-rent pop-filmmaking at the film’s core. It has a pretentious-less filler approach to the proceedings, consistently snapping its fingers loudly should your attention wander. Every element of the plot may feel reheated, but the mileage from the amusingly mismatched cast reminds one of a direct-to-video actioner of the mid-90’s. Stockwell’s pop sensibilities remind the audience they are in a movie: if a character plummets out a window holding a mattress, they’re bound to survive. Similarly, we aren’t meant to blink when a shootout is scored to Fergie‘s “London Bridge,” followed by another action sequence soundtracked with a metal cover of “Shake Your Bon-Bon.”
The international setting and chaotic anything-goes action set pieces, oddly, remind one of Tsui Hark’s mid-90’s collaborations with Jean Claude Van Damme. Those films featured similarly complex, lighthearted action plots set against gorgeous international settings. Both also feature mismatched cast members, serious character actors intermingling with intolerable comic relief, all trademarks of “Cat Run,” which spices up the action with the late arrival of vets Tony Curran and Karel Roden. Like these films, it’s almost impossible to hate the inane, hyperactive, but never dull ‘Run,’ a genuine direct-to-DVD thriller somehow hitting theaters. Consider this film graded for effort. [C]