Vicky Jewson’s “Close” transparently aspires to be something of a female riff on Jason Bourne. However, shot in only 29 days — and with a fraction of the budget for an average Hollywood blockbuster — it feels more like a proof-of-concept for an idea that the film industry has already proven (e.g. “Salt,” Tomb Raider,” “Haywire,” etc), and a dull reminder that studios need to invest more of their resources into it. Whatever inherent value there might be in gender-flipping such a generic template is mitigated by the movie’s reluctance to seize on the unique energy that its women bring to the table.
The film doesn’t have to justify casting a lead who isn’t named Chris or Matt, but Jewson and co-writer Rupert Whitaker (whose previous collaborations include 2014’s similarly violent “Born of War”) may have been too rushed to take advantage of it. If nothing else, this cut-rate thriller should be enough to silence anyone who still doubts that Noomi Rapace deserves her own bonafide action franchise, as the film revels in the strong-jawed Swede’s rare ability to alchemize Lisbeth Salander’s hardness with Jason Statham’s appetite for destruction. If only the character she plays were even half as exciting as how she plays it.
Rapace plays Sam, who was supposedly inspired by “the world’s leading female bodyguard,” Jacquie Davis. While Davis has been hired to protect luminaries such as J.K. Rowling and Diana Ross, “Close” assigns Sam to babysit the exact archetype you might expect: A spoiled teenage heiress who’s way more interested in clubbing than she is in looking after her late dad’s phosphate mines. Her name is Zoe (cherubic Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who fights valiantly against her vapid role), and she got along a bit too well with her last bodyguard: Sam is only hired because her agent is asked to “find someone who Zoe can’t fuck.” It’s also quite clear that Sam is someone who Zoe can’t fuck with, as a tense and bloody prologue — a desert shootout against some nondescript insurgents — displays Jewson’s talent for staging lucid, visceral action scenes on even the most limited of scales.
The job is simple enough: Sam is supposed to escort Zoe to her family’s massive fortress in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, ensuring the girl’s safety while her mother-in-law (the always-great Indira Varma) finalizes the massive sale that obviously has something to do with the chaos that comes next. Armed men storm the mansion-sized panic room, Sam and Zoe barely escape with their lives, and the two women — both alone in the world save for each other — flee into the heart of Casablanca. The rest of the movie is a glazed-over series of brutal fights to the death, stunted attempts at character development, and inexplicable glimpses inside the cutthroat world of corporate phosphate mining. At one point, Rapace murders a man with her hands tied behind her back, which is almost cool enough to forgive the indie pop cover of “Running Up that Hill” that plays over the James Bond-like opening credits. Almost.
At its best, “Close” is the kind of grounded, back-to-basics action movie that feels like a breath of fresh air at a time when the genre is being suffocated by CGI-driven spectacles. Jewson squeezes a remarkable amount of carnage out of her curtailed shooting schedule (and manages to keep Paul Greengrass’ camera operator from getting too shaky). And while she prefers savagery over style, there’s still a hint of early Luc Besson in how she packs memorable bursts of violence into cramped spaces. A killer example of her high-concept, low-cost imagination: Zoe’s safe house has a ballistic weapons system built into the walls, so that a dozen shotguns can automatically blasts the bad guys as they run down the hallway. Later, Sam fights a goon in a giant aquarium as schools of fish swirl around them. The indomitable Rapace — who broke her nose during the production — is up to every challenge Jewson throws at her. The more bruised beaten and beaten down she gets, the easier she is to believe. It’s the mark of a true action star.
Rapace is convincing enough to sell us on the idea that Sam is running from something real; that she’s chosen an isolated walk of life because she can’t afford to stand still, or even slow down for long enough to think about what she’s left behind. There are hints that she’s lost a daughter somewhere along the way, though the script is too vague about them for the eventual reveal to land with any weight. Her relationship with Zoe is meant to fill a hole that the film never bothers to dig, and the mother-daughter vibe doesn’t resonate strongly enough to make the action feel like it’s in the service of something more than its own bloodshed.
Both women more than hold their own, and Nélisse makes a believable transition from party girl (and low-key hacker?) to masked avenger, but the only character with any real depth is Zoe’s potentially evil mother-in-law, who’s forced to battle her dead husband for control of an empire that her own family created. It’s a fight that no man would ever have to deal with, but one that “Close” relegates to the background in favor of a female Jason Bourne clone who’s never allowed to become anything more.
“Close” will be available to stream on Netflix from January 18.