action films, bad cops, based on a book, bullies, Burt Reynolds, Chuck Zito, cinema, corrupt law enforcement, DEA agents, drug dealer, druglord, film reviews, films, Frank Grillo, Gary Fleder, Homefront, Izabela Vidovic, James Franco, Jason Statham, Kate Bosworth, Marcus Hester, Movies, Rachelle Lefevre, single father, small town life, Sylvester Stallone, thrillers, Winona Ryder
There’s certainly something to be said for a nice full-throttle, no-frills, old-fashioned action film. You know the kind that I mean: white hats vs black hats, clear-cut heroes and villains, lots of ass-kicking and just enough tension to make us think that anything could happen, even if our steadfast hero has everything locked down tighter than Fort Knox. The ’80s were a pretty fertile breeding ground for films like this, turning square-jawed bruisers like Chuck Norris, Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis, Burt Reynolds and their ilk into box-office warriors and giving a generation of kids a bakers’ dozen of take-charge “do-gooders” to look up to. While it’s debatable whether modern audiences are looking that far backwards (although the prevalence of remakes and re-dos as of late makes me think that someone has their eye planted on the rearview mirror), it’s pretty clear that filmmakers are, consciously or not, evoking the Reagan-era left and right. Case in point: director Gary Fleder’s recent Homefront (2013), a film that comes off as so influenced by gritty ’80s action films that it plays as more of an homage to the era than other obviously ’80s-leaning flicks like Almost Human (2013) and Hobo With a Shotgun (2011).
In certain ways, Homefront plays like a long-lost Burt Reynolds film, perhaps one of the string of gritty shoot-’em’ups that the hirsute mega-star was involved with throughout the ’80s: movies like Sharky’s Machine (1981), Stick (1985), Heat (1986) and especially Malone (1987) certainly seem to be spiritual forefathers to Homefront, if not strictly genetic ones. It’s certainly not difficult to see star Jason Statham as the successor to ’80s action stars: his patented brand of brooding, kind-hearted cynicism seems tailor-made for films where he reluctantly (but efficiently) opens industrial-sized barrels of whup-ass on thoroughly deserving bad guys. With Homefront, however, Statham might have just found his most implicitly ’80s film yet: that the film also ends up being one his most entertaining is certainly no mean feat.
Homefront kicks off with a sequence that, for better or worse, looked and felt like a scene from Sons of Anarchy: we watch as undercover DEA agent Phil Broker (Jason Statham) is involved in the takedown of big-time biker/druglord Danny T (Chuck Zito) and his gang. During the bust and subsequent high-speed chase through the city, Danny T’s son pulls a piece and is promptly aerated by multiple rounds from about a million cops. Broker is disgusted by the senseless killing (although, to be fair, the dude did pull a gun while surrounded by at least an entire squadron of police officers…what did he assume would happen?) and quits the force.
Fast-forward two years and Broker is now the single-father to adorable 9-year-old munchkin Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). The two live in a small, Southern town where Broker is a building contractor and does everything humanly possible to blend into the background. Blending is difficult when you have a self-assured kid who’s an expert at self-defense, however, which Broker learns after Maddy (politely) kicks the ever-loving shit out of a douchbag bully at school. Enter the bully’s repulsive parents, the ridiculously white-trash-and-proud-of-it Cassie (Kate Bosworth) and her spineless asshat of a husband, Jimmy (Marcus Hester). Cassie is furious that her beloved meatsack son got schooled by a girl and browbeats Jimmy into confronting Broker. This, of course, is a terrible move, as Broker proceeds to politely kick Jimmy’s ass up one side of the street and down the other, all while the local Sheriff (Clancy Brown) looks on.
Since Cassie has never been one to leave well-enough alone, she decides to take her complaint up the food chain: next stop, her insane brother and local meth kingpin, “Gator” Bodine (James Franco). Gator is a real piece of work, as we see when he mercilessly beats a group of sad-sack wannabe meth cooks with a baseball bat. Gator may be providing meth to his miserable addict of a sister but she’s still family, dammit, and no smooth city boy is gonna fuck with his family. This ends up setting off a chain of events where Gator and his men try to run Broker and his daughter out of town, all while Broker finds new and exciting ways to break jaws, legs, ribs and skulls. All that Broker wants is to be left alone to raise his daughter in (relative) peace and quiet. When Gator ups the ante by getting Danny T involved, Broker has no choice but to take it all to its logical extreme: if it’s a war that the backwoods mafia wants, it’s a war that they’re gonna get. To paraphrase that paragon of ’80s badassery: I pity the fool who gets between Broker and his daughter.
Like the best ’80s action flicks, Homefront is one big, thrilling mess of shattered limbs, anonymous baddies getting ventilated with automatic weapons, massive explosions, gritty violence and memorably evil antagonists. As with the best ’80s action flicks, however, Homefront lives or dies based on the inherent cool of its hero and Statham is more than up for the task. While I’ve always enjoyed Statham as an action figure, I must admit that most of his more popular films (The Transporter series, the Crank series) tend to just wear me out: as a rule, the films are kinetic nightmares, full of seemingly endless stunts, fights, explosions and little to no sense of narrative flow. If anything, they seem sort of like R-rated cartoons, so chaotic and manic that sitting through them is more about overcoming the distractions and “absorbing” the films versus actually enjoying them.
Not so with Homefront, thankfully: despite its overly polished look and sound (at times, the film looks distressingly like a Hallmark Movie of the Week, albeit one with a poundingly loud soundtrack and more casual ultra-violence than most Schwarzenegger flicks), Homefront is just about as gritty as it gets and is decidedly reminiscent of the aforementioned ’80s actions flicks. Statham brings a tired, world-weary sensibility to his portrayal of Phil Broker that really works: he doesn’t want to keep cracking skulls but he’ll be damned if these morons just can’t take the hint. Every good ’80s action star needs a good villain, however, and Franco is more than capable as the bat-shit-scary Gator. I have a love-hate relationship with Franco, to be honest: when the guy is on point, he’s pretty damn amazing, a smirking chameleon who can easily morph into whatever role he wants. The rest of the time, however, I find him to be a rather pretentious douchbag, more given to creating and upholding his own “mythology” than he is in crafting an indelible body of work: I can totally dig “Franco the actor” but I often find myself wanting to kick “Franco the celebrity” square in the family jewels.
Luckily for me, “Franco the actor” is front and center in Homefront and his Gator may be my favorite role of his yet. Franco can be an unusually expressive actor and his performance here is a minor miracle of facial tics, raised eyebrows, subtle mannerisms and explosive violence: he underplays the role so much that when he finally lets loose, he really lets loose, bringing the thunder in a pretty major way. Compare this to Winona Ryder’s “gal Friday” part as Gator’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Sheryl for an interesting parallel: Franco underplays everything to marvelous effect while Ryder overplays everything and comes across like a nitwit. In a long career of hot-and-cold performances, Ryder’s Sheryl has to be one of her coldest: despite the histrionics, there’s no part of her performance that resonates in any meaningful way.
Kate Bosworth, on the other hand, surprises rather handily as the virulent, awful Cassie. At first, Cassie comes across as the worst kind of stereotypical redneck (think a Deliverance (1972) baddie but with less self-control) but Bosworth is a gifted enough performer to bring plenty of nuance to her character, enough so that her 11th hour “humanization” comes across more as a natural progression than a deus ex machina. Poor Rachelle Lefevre (Under the Dome), however, ends up being completely wasted as Susan, one of Maddy’s teachers. In certain ways, the character of Susan feels as if it were hacked to pieces and left to bleed out on the cutting-room floor: not only does the expected (and teased) romance with Broker never materialize but Susan doesn’t really do much of anything, save walk around and look concerned. Faring much better is current action star Frank Grillo (The Grey (2011), The Purge: Anarchy (2014)), who makes a pretty scary badguy as Danny T’s lieutenant, Cyrus. The scene where he forces Sheryl to meet him at a seafood restaurant, despite her allergy to shellfish, is pretty unforgettable and prime Grillo, a it were.
Despite really enjoying Homefront, there were a few issues that forced me to rate it a little lower than I might have otherwise. As mentioned earlier, the film is never quite gritty enough to shake off that whole “Hallmark Movie” notion (in particular, the score is always heavy-handed and way too leading), despite the abundance of violence. There’s also an odd tendency for the “heroes” to seem all but invincible: there are at least four, if not more, times during the film where a good guy suffers what appears to be a fatal injury only to just “walk it off.” The same doesn’t apply to the bad guys, however, who tend to kick the bucket in herds. I was also less than enamored with a weird, irritating editing tic wherein upcoming scenes are briefly edited onto the tail-end of the preceding scene. I’m not sure who thought this was a good (or even clever) idea but it really isn’t: had the rest of the film not been so rock-solid, this would have been a deal-breaker, for sure.
That being said, I ended up enjoying Homefront to an almost ludicrous degree, perhaps because it so effectively channeled those ’80s flicks I grew up on. The script, based on a novel but adapted by action star Sly Stallone, is quite good and the numerous fight scenes are real corkers: Statham really knows how to portray a cinematic asskicker and Fleder, who also helmed Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995) and Kiss the Girls (1997), really knows how to make him look badass doing it. I really bought the relationship between Maddy and her dad, which never seemed forced and overly saccharine. And then, of course, there’s that glorious performance by Franco: somebody make this guy a Bond villain, stat!
At the end of the day, Homefront is unapologetically violent, a little cheesy and over-produced. The film is also genuinely exciting, action-packed and full of undeniable energy and verve. If you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned, black-and-white story about good guys kicking the snot out of bad guys, you could do a whole lot worse than Homefront. For anyone who grew up on those caustically cool ’80s actioners, however, Homefront may just look a lot like manna from heaven. Statham may not have Burt’s chest-chair but he sure as hell has his eye for dependably tough action roles. Let’s hope he can grind out a few more of these and give the Transporter and Crank films a rest.