Expectations for Renny Harlin movies are pretty low these days, in that most people don’t even expect them to exist. Even with that caveat, the director’s latest effort still manages to underwhelm. “The Misfits” isn’t just a low-rent slog peppered with racism in lieu of any other flavoring; it’s karmic retribution for all the well-intentioned critics (this one included) who’ve pushed back against the Marvelization of cinema by reflexively championing every lo-fi caper or self-contained shoot-’em-up as “a fun ’90s throwback.” We’re very sorry. For the crime of giving a pass to “Those Who Wish Me Dead” because it dared to exhume the simple pleasures of Harlin’s “Cliffhanger,” we’ve been punished with some hot garbage so retrograde, it would almost seem like a time machine if it weren’t also bad in so many distinctly modern ways.
Not that we shouldn’t have seen this coming. There’s a fine line between vintage and overripe, and Harlin — who made a name for himself with generational texts like “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Deep Blue Sea” before absconding to China when his brand fell out of fashion — has been stuck on the wrong side of it for more than a decade now. That was easy enough to sweep under the rug when the popcorn auteur was working in another language halfway around the world, but “The Misfits” finds him inching back toward Hollywood in a way that shines a horribly garish light on his outmoded tendencies. Not just outmoded in the sense that you’ve seen every single beat of this film done better somewhere else, but also outmoded in the sense that its big heist depends on Nick Cannon’s casually racist character disguising himself as an Arabic sheik (arguably the grossest part of a sequence that also includes hundreds of men suffering from explosive diarrhea at the same time).
But first some crucial table-setting before we get to the Middle East: The Misfits are a Robin Hood-like quartet of thieves who travel the world robbing safe-deposit boxes in order to redistribute such ill-gotten riches with the poor. To quote a line from the truly insufferable voiceover narration that Cannon reads with the same cue-card enthusiasm he honed from introducing blindfolded ferret jugglers on “America’s Got Talent”: “I never steal from people who don’t deserve it.”
Of course, it’s hard to complain about such clichés considering how dire things get when screenwriters Robert Henny and Kurt Wimmer try to spice things up. It would be one thing if Cannon were just playing a standard-issue smooth operator, but no, his character — king of the Misfits — is a Beatlemaniac named Ringo whose entire personality could be described as “flippantly racist guy who thinks Ringo Starr is the coolest musician of all time” (an opinion explored through “Family Guy”-style flashbacks that build to “American Dad”-worthy punchlines). The other members of his team are likewise afforded two entire traits. The ever-likable Jamie Chung languishes as the man-hating martial arts expert Violet, a role she manages to redeem with a kinetic fight sequence in the final minutes. Executive producer Rami Jaber plays a con man and potential royal known only as The Prince, while Thai pop star Mike D. Angelo makes a case for international recognition as the well-coiffed demolition expert Wick.
But all of these characters are really just glorified Cannon fodder for the film’s actual protagonist, a suave British thief by the name of Richard Pace (Brosnan, serving up some big “once a Bond, always a Bond” paycheck energy with professional relish). Pace is the kind of robber who likes to keep the things he’s stolen rather than give them away, but the Misfits need his experience to lift a pile of gold bricks from a for-profit Abu Dhabi prison operated by Schultz (Tim Roth, grimacing). Pace has broken out from several of Schultz’s other McJails, and therefore should be able to help the Misfits break into one and nick a fortune that will otherwise be used to fund terrorism. Their success is never in doubt, and so the more compelling question becomes whether or not Pace will actually hand over his share of the money when all is said and done. For leverage, the Misfits join forces with Pace’s estranged daughter (Hermione Corfield), a do-gooder type obviously named Hope.
But such “are you serious?” choices are the lesser evil in a movie that otherwise eschews internal logic altogether, especially during a central heist sequence that combines Soderberghian style with all the criminal genius of someone trying to rob Fort Knox with a finger-gun. All the bouncy music, implausible costume changes, and conveniently omitted details in the world can’t force any fun out of a caper that doesn’t consider what the audience knows of the plan or convince them to care about how it might go wrong. It doesn’t help that Harlin makes almost no clever use of the airy prison setting (a mix of LA interiors and Abu Dhabi facades), or that every twist is spoiled for us via Cannon’s self-impressed voiceover rather than played out onscreen. At least Schultz’s looks nice, which is par for the course in a beautifully shot movie that feels like an illustrated travel brochure for the UAE even when scores of extras are projectile vomiting over the architecture.
To that end, the steady drone of Islamophobia in “The Misfits” — baked into the film’s layer cake of other casual bigotries — seems intended as more of a feature than a bug, as the stunning Abu Dhabi locations and considerable UAE-based funding backdrop enough Bush-era imagery to make the movie feel like a tourism ad trying to sell Americans on their own latent jingoism. Dark-hooded terrorists, a retinue of interchangeable servants who are all named Muhammad, cynical riffs about the supposed interchangeability of Middle Eastern countries… all of these things and more can be yours to laugh at from your luxury suite in a seven-star hotel. At a certain point, it seems like missing the forest for the trees to complain that the camel jokes don’t land with the same panache that Elaine May (or even Kim Cattrall) once brought to them. Which is just to say that it’s rarely a good sign when a movie leaves you thinking: “The Renny Harlin who made ‘The Adventures of Ford Fairlane’ would never have stood for this lazy, mean-spirited crap.”
“The Misfits” is now available to rent or buy on VOD.