An effective cure to whatever lingering nostalgia you might have for the chintzy, winking, hyper-stylized neo-noirs that flooded the indie film market in the wake of “Pulp Fiction,” Vaughn Stein’s “Terminal” takes a mess of dead tropes and Frankensteins them together into an crime saga that’s in desperate need of brains. And a soul. And a story.
That being said, this candied genre mishmash owes much less to Mary Shelley than it does to Lewis Carroll or Frank Miller. Stein’s exhausting pastiche unfolds like a cross between “Alice in Wonderland” and “Sin City,” as its dire cast of hitmen, femme fatales, and shadowy masterminds are filtered through a neon underworld where nonsense is the only kind of sense that anyone has left. As the film’s dark city is described by one of its most demented residents: “There is a place like no other on Earth — a land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say to survive it you need to be as mad as a hatter.” Okay, but it’s hard to imagine a rabbit having any use for such a shallow hole.
That cloying narration is provided by a contract killer called Bonnie (Margot Robbie, desperately trying to will the film to life), and she finishes it off by insisting that she’s insane enough to thrive in this anonymous pit of vipers. If nothing else, “Terminal” makes good on that promise. Playing Bonnie in a way that makes Harley Quinn seem perfectly well-adjusted by comparison, Robbie delivers a performance that’s heightened enough to harken back to the Joel Schumacher Batman movies.
And she does it twice over. After a maddeningly convoluted intro in which it’s established that Bonnie plans on turning two hitmen against each other, Robbie is reintroduced in a second role: Annie, a sociopathic waitress who works at a diner in the world’s bleakest train station (like the rest of the sets in the film, the eatery is built on a massive Hungarian soundstage, the artificial darkness creating an atmosphere that’s dense and empty in equal measure). Most of the moribund story takes place here, the diner becoming a nexus for most of Stein’s broad caricatures.
First up are the aforementioned assassins, both impatiently waiting for orders from their mysterious client. Alfred (Max Irons) is the impetuous young gun, while Vince (Dexter Fletcher) is the misogynistic veteran who’s run out of patience for his partner, and for everything else. The film’s splintered timeline (natch) contains these killers to their own plot, so they never cross paths with a wimpy English professor named Bill (Simon Pegg), who stumbles into Annie’s restaurant in search of the push he needs to commit suicide.
Like everything else in this refried mess, Bill’s conversations with the waitress build to a woefully contrived twist, but the journey is more of a bummer than the destination. There’s only so much asinine chatter you can stomach before you’re ready for everyone in “Terminal” to throw themselves onto the tracks. “Death is by far the best bit of life!” Annie chirps like a manic pixie dream accomplice, epitomizing Stein’s cringeworthy attempts to marry the playfulness of Wonderland with the nihilism of noir.
It’s unclear what Mike Myers is up to as the doddering janitor who skulks around the background and speaks in an exhumed Austin Powers voice, but you don’t have to be Dashiell Hammett to figure out that he’s not just there for comic relief. His character becomes more important as things wear on, the movie gathering some kind of momentum as its various threads finally knot together in a series of ridiculous twists. There’s never much reason to care — Stein’s only clear aspiration is for things to look cool, which they sometimes do — but viewers who manage to see this through to the end might find themselves reluctantly bemused by the silliness of the film’s climactic beats.
To its perverse credit, “Terminal” turns out to be even dumber than it seems, which (in hindsight, at least) makes everyone’s commitment to the project all the more enjoyable. No one could accuse Stein of taking himself too seriously. There’s almost enough here to leave you curious as to what the writer-director might create if he weren’t so content to repurpose his favorite things into a rancid potpourri that’s less interesting than any one of its parts; if he weren’t so entranced by the idea that noirs are just grim fairy tales for a world without morals. “I’m not going to throw myself into a yawning chasm just because it fits cleanly into a metaphor,” one of the characters insists — Stein would do well to take his own advice.
“Terminal” opens in theaters and on VOD on May 11.