Bruce Willis has been “too old for this shit” since he starred in “Die Hard” when he was 33. Steely-eyed apathy has always been his brand — he’s not giving a great performance unless it feels like he and his titanic hangover would rather be literally anywhere else on Earth. He’s not Bruce Willis because he looked like a badass when he was killing his rapist with a samurai sword in “Pulp Fiction,” he’s Bruce Willis because he pulled it off while managing to spend all of his other scenes in that movie looking like he was vaguely mad at us for encouraging his career.
Weary disinterest was his way of letting audiences know that he cared. Unfortunately for Willis, that dynamic has resulted in a dire consequence: Viewers are so attuned to his careful and considered strain of weariness that it’s blindingly obvious when he actually phones something in, and even more deflating to see than it might be otherwise. His part in “Marauders” is a small one, but even his most casual fans will be struck by the difference of his indifference, especially as it creeps into and contaminates every other scene in the film, reducing a marginally interesting thriller into an epochal statement of creative detachment.
From the guy who brought you “Extraction” and “Submerged,” “Marauders” is a hyper-convoluted heist movie that’s every bit as generic as its title might suggest. Set in a Cincinnati (where the rain falls in uninterrupted sheets, and every shot is filtered through the same industrial blue light that immediately identifies so many VOD-quality thrillers), the film begins with its only compelling sequence, as a team of masked bank robbers storm a local branch. They sweep through the building with trained precision and advanced technology, using a Siri-like device to calmly tell the customers not to try any funny business. And then, director Steven C. Miller punctuates the prologue with a bullet, as one of the thieves needlessly executes a security guard before stealing away into the dreary metropolis.
The questions raised by that one inflection of violence (e.g. “Why would such expert criminals go out of their way to commit murder?”) soon unfurl into a labyrinthine revenge conspiracy that could be generously described as “…huh?” Starting with corruption in the local police force and then metastasizing to involve the FBI, the über-rich owner of the targeted bank chain (Bruce Willis), and the War in Afghanistan, “Marauders” manages to be at once both agonizingly generic and completely insane.
The most ridiculous thing about this movie — and also its saving grace — is that many of its characters embody that same dichotomy. For example, Christopher Meloni plays Agent Jonathan Montgomery, a bullheaded leader who seems less like a human being than he does a crazy monster that resulted from someone using that machine from “The Fly” while holding all 20 seasons of “Law & Order.”
Meloni, who appears to be having the time of his life, chews through the scenery like he’s hoping to find a stash of illegal heroin behind every wall and inside every couch cushion. During the day, he throws himself into pissing contests about jurisdiction with guys who have names like Stockwell (Dave Bautista), Mims (Johnathon Schaech), and Wells (Adrian Grenier, as the token new recruit who everyone distrusts because he speaks in complete sentences). At night, he looms over an untouched glass of red wine and holds a pistol to his head while thinking about his late wife. He’s gruff, but tortured!
It’s a performance that would be the stuff of legend, if only Meloni had been granted a few more lines of memorable dialogue. As it stands, his turn will be remembered for the unforgettable moment in which Montgomery flies off the handle and, during an otherwise civil conversation with a colleague, suddenly screams “Your wife is alive!”
Of course, the wife of one of Montgomery’s fellow agents is dying of cancer, because every woman in this film exists for no other reason than to motivate their meathead husband into doing something sweet and stupid. And that conflicted sense of morality is ultimately what “Marauders” is all about — other than its evil chief baddie, even the film’s most violent men are good people who have been compromised by their own desperation, screenwriters Michael Cody and Chris Sivertson taking a page out of “The Rock” as their script uses a military pretext to explore some grey areas.
“Does doing things the legal way really make it better?” one character asks after it’s discovered that the bank robbers may be trying to lead Montgomery towards a greater threat. For a while, it seems as though the movie is going to leave that question dangling in the wind, but a last-minute availability in Bruce Willis’ schedule allows for a dopey coda that answers this ethical quandary once and for all.
And Willis, it would appear, put in a solid three or four days of work on this picture. Introduced with a gloriously silly monologue about the tenacious spider on the outside of his office window, Willis’ presence is confined to just a handful of scenes, the vast majority of which take place in the same dull room. At one point, while exchanging coded threats with Meloni, he flashes a wincing smile that seems to say “Every facial expression costs extra.” Even on auto-pilot, the action movie icon still exudes a formidable screen presence, but his apathy is so palpable that it casts a pall over the rest of the movie — if he can’t give a shit about all of this, why should we?
Part of the problem is that films like “Marauders” have become so synonymous with cut-rate mediocrity that their awfulness is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the market for mid-budget movies has disappeared into the void that’s formed between blockbuster tentpoles and tiny indies — and the steroidal aesthetic of the late 20th Century has been replaced by a more sensitive definition of masculinity — the braindead crime thrillers that propped up Hollywood in the ’90s (and before) have become a refuge for the aging stars who first became famous for making them.
There’s no place for them at the American box office, so they’re made for foreign territories, often with foreign money (and for as little of it as possible). They’re based on scripts that once had higher aspirations, pre-sold on the waning strength of names like “Cage” and “Cusack,” and slapped with one-word titles that might as well be pulled out of a hat. It’s not that they can’t be good, but rather that being good wouldn’t really help. The movies don’t care about the actors, the actors don’t care about the movies, and the apathy that Bruce Willis once tamed into an art form is finally allowed to get the better of him.
“Marauders” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday.