It should be so easy to root for “Hotel Artemis.” An original, star-studded, somewhat sci-fi crime thriller in a summer movie season that’s already bloated with sterile franchise junk, Drew Pearce’s directorial debut is exactly the kind of mid-budget divertissement that cinema needs to survive. In theory, at least.
Set in an art deco hideout that’s been refashioned into a secret hospital for criminals and killers (imagine a much dingier, more derivative version of the Continental Hotel from “John Wick”), the film has so much working in its favor: Sterling K. Brown in a lead role! Jodie Foster’s first acting work in five years! Dave Bautista as a sweet-natured strongman who barks things like “Check out time is never!” Not to mention Jeff Goldblum playing a feared underworld figure known only as “The Wolf King,” and a scene where someone gets murdered with a 3D printer! And it wraps all of this stuff in a moldy enchilada of future panic, dropping us into downtown L.A. circa 2028 as corporate malfeasance incites the largest riot in the city’s history.
Yet, for all of these potential charms and prophetic worries, “Hotel Artemis” struggles to sustain even the most basic level of intrigue, suspense, or entertainment value. A handful of amusing details in desperate need of a purpose, the film spends its first half looking for a compelling reason to exist, and its second half trying to disguise the fact that it can’t find one.
The action is set 10 years from now, in a dark and seedy version of Los Angeles that resembles what ’90s movies thought the millennium might look like (in its more evocative moments, “Hotel Artemis” is hellish enough to feel like it’s right down the street from “Strange Days”). We open in the middle of a bank robbery, as a criminal codenamed “Waikiki” (Brown) and his brother “Honolulu” (“Atlanta” mega-talent Brian Tyree Henry) separate some rich folks from their money, and steal a MacGuffin in the process. When the heist inevitably goes wrong and Honolulu gets shot by the police, the thieves only have one place to go.
The Artemis is a nifty bit of noir set design, even if the floor plan seems a bit flat for a tower, and the massive neon sign on the roof seems a bit conspicuous for a secret hideout. Pearce, directing his own script, tells us everything we really need to know about the place in a single beat, as the hospital’s resident nurse and de facto custodian (a bedraggled Foster) hides a blood-stained pillow by simply flipping it around. This place is a last resort for lawless people — the musk of death hangs in the unfiltered air, and all of the patients who pass through are accustomed to it. Only one character has the nerve to say anything about the atmosphere (a dull sleaze embodied by Charlie Day), and it’s a good indication that he’s probably in the wrong place.
The Nurse runs a tight ship for such a rotting place. There are strict rules in place, and the fittingly named “Everest” is there to make sure people follow them (he’s played by Bautista, who radiates the same gently violent charisma that makes him such a standout in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films). With Nanotechnology allowing them to do the work of a much larger medical stuff, Everest and the Nurse are able to plug up the bad guys and keep them shooting new holes in each other (a difficult task when some of the slimier patients keep threatening a femme fatale like Sofia Boutella’s “Nice”). Even when the city is literally on fire, the common refrain is that it’s “just another Wednesday.” It’s only when the Wolf King (a very Jeff Goldblum Jeff Goldblum) rolls up and starts demanding emergency treatment that things start to spin out of control, and the synth drone of Cliff Martinez’s score begins to rise above a numbing rumble.
It’s a colorful premise, and a dank pastiche of influences that Pearce Frankensteins into a film that feels like too many different things to ever assume a coherent shape of its own. Wedged somewhere between noir grit and cartoon flamboyance — between Dashiell Hammett and Park Chan-wook (condolences to “Oldboy” cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, a genius who can’t shoot his way out of these cramped sets), this underworld opera lacks the stylistic vision required to thread the need between its various modes. The plot is obvious, the characters archetypical, the dialogue in desperate need of its own voice; by the time that Jenny Slate shows up to kickstart the Nurse’s trite and unnecessary backstory, it’s clear the air is hardly the only thing in the Artemis that’s gone stale.
It’s frustrating to watch so much wasted potential in one place, but Pearce consistently goes out of his way to stop “Hotel Artemis” from becoming the movie he wants it to be. “You’re lucky this place has rules,” Boutella smirks at Day after threatening to murder him with a broken mug, but the audience doesn’t share in his good fortune — we’re just waiting for things to go haywire, as Pearce bides his time for so long that you start to suspect he didn’t have the budget to pull the trigger any sooner. At least Boutella characteristically delivers the goods in the film’s climactic fight scene (which also happens to be the film’s only fight scene).
While the world is certainly eager for stories of people trying to maintain order and humanity in the face of recklessness and self-interest, Pearce doesn’t find the insight required to find anything useful in that struggle. He doesn’t tap into the imagination to find anything fun in there, either. “You work with what you get, not what you hoped for,” Everest resigns. But far too often, “Hotel Artemis” even fails to make use of what it has at its disposal.
“Hotel Artemis” opens in theaters on Friday, June 8.