The genre of Neo-noir finds itself in dire need of an injection of adrenaline. Though there are outliers, with 2014's Nightcrawler and the John Wick series coming to mind, the genre hit its high water mark in the 90s and has never quite managed to experience the heady heights of its recent heyday. Drew Pearce's bold little creation, however, dauntlessly squaring off against much more prolific and highly-budgeted films at the apex of the summer blockbuster season, looks all set to give this little cinematic niche the kiss of life that it deserves.
Noir, both Neo and regular, is scarce complete without bleak environments, oppressive cityscapes, and troubled individuals trying to survive the turbulent circumstances in which they find themselves. Hotel Artemis combines all three – set in the near future, a Los Angeles rife with violence and social discord as the discontented public wages war against the city's law enforcement over water privatisation, career criminal Sherman (Sterling K Brown), later known almost exclusively by his alias 'Waikiki', stages a robbery of a bank in the heart of the city. When plans go awry, he and his crew resort to an alternative, and in doing so, Sherman's brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) filches a rather ornate pen. An altercation with police agents soon after quickly turns bloody, leading Sherman and his brother to head to the eponymous hotel, a safe haven for ne'er-do-wells, malcontents and reprobates overseen by the two-man crew of Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster) and her unwaveringly faithful yet often bemused subordinate, Everest (Dave Bautista). From there, the situation rapidly escalates as plot lines converge, plans are set afoot, spectres from years gone by materialise once again and wolves close in - both figuratively and, in a sense, quite literally.
Unlike many of its predecessors that can fall under the genre of Neo-noir, chiefly The Matrix, Fight Club and American Psycho, Hotel Artemis is not brimming with potent philosophical wit, or mordant social commentary – it advertises itself as a gripping action romp first and foremost, and although at times the burn is slow it eventually comes to deliver on that in remarkable fashion as paths intertwine, motives are gradually revealed after many a decent red herring, and it all comes to a wonderfully fast-paced and fisticuffs-filled climax, replete with bladed implements, fluid choreography, and raw satisfaction.
The cast make the experience all the more worthwhile – through at times Brown does find himself outshone by his colleagues, he plays Sherman with a cocktail of grit, suaveness and a smidgen of sophistication, on top of a dash of familial fealty. Sofia Boutella is perhaps the most eye-catching performance next to Foster as Nice, an enigmatic lone wolf and a skilled – the 'professional' to Sherman's 'business' – with a thing for knives, strutting her action chops wherever possible, and putting certain despicable individuals in their place. Rounding out this alluring cast is Jean Foster, a doctor who has made it her mission in live to provide medical attention to criminals, adhering to a strict list of rules in doing so. She is by far the most gripping character in this ensemble, and although her set-up is a touch transparent and has been done plenty of times prior, Foster plays her impeccably, all the more so when fragments of her past inevitably rise once again to haunt her. She and Bautista play surprisingly well off of one another, in addition, the latter's physically imposing yet disarmingly mild-mannered nurse – most of the time, at least – serving as her emotional anchor and occasional voice of reason when the two aren't delightfully trading barbs.
The cinematography is striking, too, especially during the scenes that portray the unrestrained anarchy unfolding just beyond the relative safety of the hotel's walls, from the visually arresting opening shot that gives us a glimpse of the chaos to come to nocturnal scenes that play host to churning pillars of smoke clawing upwards at the pitch black sky, streets illuminated by explosions and raging infernos as helicopters spiral, stricken, out of the air. The design also oozes immaculate charm – Artemis' interior is where we spend much of our time, from the stylishly furnished rooms of its occupants to the high-tech nature of its medical bay - complete with a 3D printer for all your convenient organ replacement needs - to its lesser-trod and grimier passageways all feel acutely lived-in and genuine, and the technology we glimpse feels entirely possible and plausible for us to eventually possess. Just the bits and pieces that we see of the criminal underworld that runs throughout the seedy underbelly of LA, too, prove enticing, akin to how John Wick's own Continental offered us a tantalising look at a wider world before it was expanded upon. Aside, the narrative does, perhaps, miss out on some opportunities by keeping its scope so narrowly confined to the corridors of the titular establishment, for the most part, but the movie is aware of its objectives and is tightly-written enough to compensate.
Despite this, however, unlike its predecessors, chiefly The Matrix, Fight Club and American Psycho, out of those films that can fall under the Neo-noir categorisation, Hotel Artemis does not strive to dispense any profound philosophy or thought-provoking and disturbing statements on the nature of humanity. Indeed, it seems as though the film makes an attempt to actively avoid discussing or referencing such topics, and the one character in its cast that comes closest to potentially being a conduit for that - Charlie Day's Acapulco - is depicted as an incorrigibly misogynistic, racist, arrogant mound of sentient excrement, even though his crass behaviour does provide a handful of laughs. A conversation that Nice and Sherman hold around the halfway point is welcomed, but the script as a whole plays it safe, having already been set on its identity from the start. This is far from a crushing drawback, however, and the film does make statements in its own way - water privatisation, the focal point of the riots tearing away at Los Angeles, is an issue of headed contention, both in the UK where Drew Pearce hails from, and in certain regions within the United States, Detroit in particular - and what better place to have a historical riot on the US mainland than within the city that has played host to two historic riots of its own? Even though the film shies away from the t the script is still peppered with a smattering of light observations that, in these curious and often troubling times, give rise to some dark humour. "This is America," Jean flatly remarks at one point, "85 percent of what I treat is bullet wounds."
Drew Pearce's directorial debut might not come to be classified as an 'intelligent' film of its genre, and with it contending with so many other high-profile titles in the cinematic battlefield that is summer, it may well come to pass that it ends up forgotten and left by the wayside - but it does not deserve such a fate. With high-octane thrills, a compelling world, a solid cast and hints of a potential follow-up that I, at least, hope will be realised, Hotel Artemis is a neon-drenched, gritty and bloodstained spectacle that is more than worth checking in to.