Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about “Term Life” is that it’s exactly the limp, shapeless, and forgettable kind of thriller you might expect from the director of “Couples Retreat” (Peter Billingsley, a.k.a. Ralphie from “A Christmas Story”). Vince Vaughn, starring in the kind of role that feels like it was only available to him because Nicolas Cage passed on it first, plays Nick Barrow, a low-level criminal who designs heists for a living. He doesn’t execute them or get his hands dirty, he’s merely the architect. Judging by the monotone delivery of his voiceover narration, he’s getting a little bored with his work (it sounds like Vaughn was hopped up on painkillers when he went into the recording booth, though it’s almost worth the price of admission to hear how he pronounces the word “schematics”). Fortunately for Nick, a multiple homicide is about to spice things up, as a group of his clients is gunned down when they return to their hideout after a successful steal.
By the time the opening credits have come to a close, our gawky hero has already been framed for the murders, and is being hunted by Victor Fuentes (Jordi Mollà, essentially reprising his role as the wacko villain from “Bad Boys II“), a man so deadly and deranged that “cemeteries are in business because of him.” So that’s not good.
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The details of these underworld shenanigans are murky from the start — eventually becoming downright incomprehensible once Bill Paxton and his cadre of crooked cops are involved in the action — but the underlying fact remains that Nick needs to get out of dodge. Nick, however, isn’t quite living the kind of life that he can drop in 30 seconds or less when he feels the heat coming around the corner. He has an estranged 16-year-old daughter named Cate (Hailee Steinfeld) whom he likes to spy on from the bushes outside her mom’s house or the car he’s parked outside of her favorite nightclub (don’t worry, it’s too underdeveloped to be creepy; like so many of the things about this movie, this detail is too underdeveloped to be much of anything). Nick may not have much of a relationship with his teenage offspring, but his enduring love for Cate would make her a most valuable hostage.
Fortunately, our boy Nick has a plan: He’s going to design the ultimate heist in order to pay Victor whatever money he’s owed. …No? No, that’s not what happens. Oh! He’s going to hatch a robbery in order to steal the one piece of evidence that might prove his innocence and force Victor to let him off the hook! Guess again. Nick’s plan is to take out some life insurance, effectively kidnap his daughter, and go into hiding for the three weeks it takes for the policy to go into effect.
It’s a noble scheme, intended to compensate for years of neglectful parenting and ensure that Cate is taken care of in the event of Nick’s demise, and — in other hands — it could have been the premise of an interesting thriller with a ticking clock. But “Term Life” has a seemingly pathological disinterest in pursuing its most fun ideas, and the whole insurance business almost never comes up again, despite being right there in the title.
For heaven’s sake, the man has a death sentence hanging over his head and he never so much as looks at a calendar. It often feels as though Billingsley was tasked with delivering the most generic possible version of “Matchstick Men,” and had to course-correct for any creative choices that might make the film look out of place on the DVD rack of a gas station. How else to explain a movie about a guy who designs heists (cool!) in which said guy doesn’t design any heists? (Other than the hilariously simple smash-and-grab job we see during the opening titles, in which some security guards are distracted by an explosion and take their eyes off the bags of money they’ve been hired to protect). Nick Barrow isn’t exactly a franchise character, but watching a film so unwilling to play up his only point of interest makes the befuddling “Term Life” feel like an “Iron Man” movie in which Tony Stark never puts on his suit.
So what we’re left with is an asinine movie that has the premise for a thriller, the tone of a half-hearted neo-noir, and the plot of a daddy-daughter dramedy. There’s an easy charm to the burgeoning relationship between Nick and Cate, which is helped tremendously by the fact that Vaughn’s character is so steady in his affections for his kid. There’s precious little screen-time devoted to the bond between them, but all of it can be devoted to the young girl’s flagging resentment for her absent father — Cate’s arc may not be particularly fresh or engaging (and Steinfeld is little more than a glorified prop), but it’s the only thing in the movie that has a clear enough trajectory to result in a genuine payoff.
Meanwhile, Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Jon Favreau — all of whom would qualify as extras if their characters hadn’t been given names — vanish from the movie as if it weren’t a suspicious waste of star power. Maybe their recognizable faces will be used on the home video art? Keep an eye out the next time you’re waiting for the cashier at a Mobil.
“Term Life” is now in theaters and on VOD.