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A mysterious, muscled-up South African combs through both the seedy and high-glam corners of Los Angeles to look for his sister in the stylish neo-noir Message From the King.
The film, directed by Belgian genre maestro Fabrice Du Welz (Hallelujah, Vinyan), feels like a vehicle designed to show off the action-star bona fides of lead Chadwick Boseman — who will finally headline his own Black Panther film in early 2018 after having had his character introduced in Captain America: Civil War — and on that count, it succeeds. And with a slick, outsider’s perspective on the City of Angels and some interesting possibilities that are set up early on, this Message gets off to a great start. But the screenplay becomes a muddle and then a mess in its second half, especially when a laughable caricature is introduced as the bad guy. Even the fact that he’s played by Alfred Molina can’t save this despicable character.
With the cast rounded out by Australian actress Teresa Palmer and Brit import Luke Evans, this feature at least has some star power, so it’s no surprise that Netflix is reportedly circling this title, which debuted at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. That seems appropriate, as this revenge movie feels more suited to home-viewing formats than the big screen.
When South African tourist Jacob King (Boseman) is interrogated at LAX at the start of the film, he doesn’t have a hotel reservation or a credit card to his name. Will the couple of hundred dollars he’s got on him be enough for his planned week’s stay? It’s perhaps a valid question for a border agent, though at several intervals, the pic underlines how the motives of anyone who isn’t a white male are more and more openly scrutinized in the U.S. (That said, don’t expect a Black Lives Matter revenge movie, either; Du Welz is finally more interested in making his own version of an L.A. neo-noir rather than any kind of topical genre film.)
It turns out Jacob has come to L.A. because he’s worried about his sister, Bianca (Sibongile Mlambo), who moved there but who hasn’t been in touch for too long for Jacob’s liking. King’s desire to find out where Bianca is and what happened to her drives the action (when someone immediately suggests he check the morgue, any genre fan will know this won’t end well). To say he won’t be amused by what his sister has been put through is an understatement, though instead of explaining that in words, King might resort to using objects such as bicycle chains.
The basic plot mechanics are very much a genre affair and thus a great fit for Du Welz. With his background in stylish psychological Eurohorror — which besides the Emmanuelle Beart vehicle and Thai ghost story Vinyan and the Honeymoon Killers-inspired Hallelujah also includes cult favorite Calvaire — the Belgian director has both a foreigner’s eye, like his protagonist, and a demonstrated understanding of how fear, loss and anger can impact a character’s psychology.
But as opposed to his other features, which, unlike this one, he co-wrote, Du Welz struggles to keep the story here moving forward fluidly. The screenplay, penned by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, who also wrote the Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown, is bogged down by uninteresting subplots and minor characters until some of the main characters end up in the villa of Hollywood producer Mike Preston (Molina), who’s both gay and a pedophile and who has more than a few unsavory dealings with a Beverly Hills dentist (Evans) and a local politician (Chris Mulkey).
There’s more than one problem with this band of freaks. Firstly, it feels extremely odd in a film that’s clearly aware of police brutality against minorities that gays aren’t given the same consideration but are depicted instead as corrupted criminals with a taste for effeminate men and underage children. If his soulful and aching performance as an aging homosexual man who finally gets to marry in Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange hadn’t almost directly preceded this turn, one would wonder whether Molina wasn’t a raging homophobe, seeing how far his role goes into caricature territory here.
The second major problem is that the connection between Bianca and what’s happening at Preston’s villa is only an indirect one, and that the audience, which is following Jacob, is even further removed from the action. Since Jacob also isn’t much of a talker, it thus becomes very hard to care about him and even harder to be invested in what happens to his mostly unseen sister and her personal problems with various very unpleasant people.
What remains, besides the film’s stylish cinematography, is Boseman’s intensely focused, almost wordless performance and the lovely chemistry he has with yet another rather clichéd character, a prostitute with a heart of gold played by Palmer. There’s also a clever final twist of sorts back in South Africa, though it is this kind of smart decision that is lacking for much of the film’s second and third acts.
Production companies: Entertainment One Features, Entre Chien et Loup, The Ink Factory, Silver Nitrate
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Teresa Palmer, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina, Tom Felton, Natalie Martinez, Sibongile Mlambo
Director: Fabrice Du Welz
Screenplay: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell
Producers: Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell, David Lancaster
Executive producers: Chadwick Boseman, Alexei Boltho, Steven Kemper, Ash R. Shah, Rhodri Thomas
Director of photography: Monika Lenczewsk
Production designer: Melanie Jones
Costume designer: Alexis Scott
Editor: Beatrice Sisul
Music: Vincent Cahay, Felix Penny
Casting: Mark Bennett
Not rated, 102 minutes
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