The fact that “Vice” is a straight-to-video rip-off of “Westworld” should become painfully obvious from reading the film’s IMDb logline alone. However, the real tragedy is that this B-movie, sci-fi/action schlockfest, which also shamelessly steals ideas, and sometimes entire sequences, from “Blade Runner,” “Robocop,” “Groundhog’s Day,” “The Matrix,” and “Total Recall” to name just a few, actually contains a couple of semi-interesting hard science-fiction ideas. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore, who wrote the upcoming Dwayne Johnson disaster pic “San Andreas,” have no clue how to exploit them beyond serving as clunky placeholders before kickstarting a dumb chase picture.
The story takes place in and around an entertainment complex called Vice, where people can satisfy their most depraved violent and/or sexual urges via robots made up mostly of organic tissue, making them almost indistinguishable from humans. During an expository sequence so clumsily handled that Fabrizio and Passmore should have entered the scene and apologized to the audience for not being able to come up with a better way to relay this information (it’s one of those scenes where a technician bafflingly explains to another technician all the tech mumbo-jumbo both of them should already know), we find out that these replicants, excuse me, robots, are stuffed with memory implants, which are erased and reset at the end of every day.
One such robot is Rachael, excuse me, Kelly (Ambyr Childers), who fully believes that she’s a real human being living in a working class version of “Sex and The City” as a bartender. This brings us to the first of the intriguing yet undercooked ideas. If we approach Vice as a kind of organic sandbox video game, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what all of those AI characters are doing when your console is not running? What does the fast food worker in “GTA V” do after your playable character buys a burger from him to replenish his health bar? What would happen if these characters suddenly found out that they’re cannon fodder in a game made for one person’s sick pleasures?
Something close to that happens to Kelly, whose deleted memories suddenly begin coming back to her (in a suspiciously “Dark City”-like fashion), pushing Vice’s evil owner Julian (a suicidally bored-looking Bruce Willis) to erase her memory once and for all. However, during a scene that’s such a shot-by-shot remake of the exact same sequence from “Total Recall” that I fully expected Kelly to grab a scientist’s throat and scream “My name is not Quaid!!”, Kelly escapes the evil clutches of the Vice engineers and discovers the truth behind her identity. All of these plot points could have been revealed in a smart and mysterious way, showing these revelations take place from Kelly’s point of view. Unfortunately, since we’re fully aware of Vice’s true raison-d’etre from scene one, all possible mystery is sucked out of the story and what we’re left with is an uninspired low-budget action flick.
The second interesting idea revolves around Roy (Thomas Jane and his “Samurai Cop” meets grunge cosplay haircut), a sci-fi detective archetype so clichéd he comes with both a five o’clock shadow AND a toothpick in his mouth. Roy is the prototypical “analog cop in a digital age” who’s tired of people confusing fantasy with reality and killing actual human beings outside of Vice. This brings up the other stimulating idea, the one that blows up the debunked “Violent video games create violent people” myth until it honestly makes a bit of sense. If the game we’re playing is truly indistinguishable from real life, could it bleed into our behavior in reality? Of course this theme also ends up hanging in the air after a quick monologue from Roy, who eventually turns into a mindless grunt for Kelly’s revenge against Julian. The one possible saving grace of this flat character is that Jane, more than likely aware of the project’s blandness, gives an overtly muggy performance that pushes beyond self-parody.
The same can’t be said about Willis, who, forget about action classics from his ’90s heyday, looks like he would rather be on the set of “Red 2.” His flat line performance of a bad guy whose basest evil motivations are left unexplained is a new low for Willis. “Vice” pulls the typical B-movie casting stunt, hiring recognizable stars for a week’s worth of work and plastering their faces on every single marketing material. Get ready to see a lot of Ambyr Childers and very little of Bruce Willis, whose total screen time has to be less than ten minutes.
Director Brian A. Miller (“The Prince”) provides such a flat visual style, that using it the word “style” in the same sentence with his work in “Vice” is offensive by itself. There are lots and lots of articles on the Internet complaining about the overuse of orange and teal in sci-fi actioners. Miller drowns his film in such a grotesque display of orange and teal that the writers of these articles should apologize to the makers of the films they mocked. Apparently, it can always get worse. Dull and lifeless, “Vice” fails on the promise of even its lowest ambitions. [F]