As geeky as I am, I’ve become wary of geek-movie grindhouse hype, especially as it pertains to the pleasures of what Hot Fuzz described as “firing two guns whilst jumping through the air.” Too many of my nerd compatriots look to gore and attitude as the ultimate signifiers of old-fashioned action movie cool. But I admit, a recent geek-hyped bloodbath that premiered to cheers at Fantastic Fest really did work on its own spare, choreography-obsessed, B-movie terms. That movie was John Wick. It was not Everly, opening today, starring Salma Hayek, much as the combination of Hayek and the good old Dimension Films logo primed me for wishful nostalgia for what Robert Rodriguez used to do with bare-bones stories and good-looking carnage.
Rodriguez was able to revolutionize his filmmaking process and then run it into the ground with the help of digital video, which is a starting place for Everly‘s disappointments. Rodriguez can use the mobility and flexibility of digital, along with his eye for compositions, to make up for any aesthetic shortcomings, and someone like Michael Mann goes the other way, making the digital textures painterly and abstract. But as a default for low-budget exploitation films, digital looks as it does here: thin and washed out, especially in closer shots of bodies in motion.
Of course, the prettiest cinematography in the world wouldn’t mute Everly dialogue like: “That’s a lot of dead whores.”
It sure is; the movie takes place entirely within an apartment building full of hookers, though I wasn’t clear on whether the apartment belonged to Everly, or if it was part of a larger brothel, or if it was a hooker co-op, or what. There’s a neat in-media-res opening where Everly staggers into the bathroom (complete with some vaguely De Palma-ish overhead shots) while a bloodbath seems to be gearing up just outside the door. Catch-up doesn’t take long: Everly has angered her boss, crime lord Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), and now wave after wave of assassins (including various other prostitutes, eager for the bounty on her head) are making their way to Everly as she scrambles to fend them off while making arrangements for her mother and her young daughter (who doesn’t know her) to get out of town while they can.
Director Joe Lynch and his co-writer Yale Hannon don’t appear to have given much thought to the logistics of a single-location action thriller beyond its cost-effectiveness and general perceived coolness; wouldn’t it be cool if hookers in heels kept kicking down the door brandishing shotguns and shit? It counts as girl power if you have a bunch of ladies say “bitch” a lot, right? And gutter poetry, if the dialogue has passages that more or less alternate “fuck” and “bitch”? A little bit of Everly is actually clever rather than exerting itself to come off as fun so stupid it’s clever, like a well-timed fight shot at a safe distance from the building’s elevator. But most of the action derives from semi-nonsensical stop-start killing schemes (everyone rush in guns blazing! Now stop for a while) that no one seems to expect will work; there are no intricacies to the movie’s simplistic action architecture beyond its self-contradictions. That is to say, Taiko immediately places a major bounty on Everly’s head, but also hires a villain out of a torture-porn movie to show up for a Grand Guignol stakes-raising, seeming to assume she’ll still be alive despite her lack of experience and his clear numbers advantage.
Everly’s novice status is one of the movie’s more promising ideas, as panic often breaks through the badass posing of your typical vengeful hooker-assassin. But that vulnerability, too, gets bungled in the execution; she evades a lot of scrapes by grabbing a previously unseen weapon, and survives a glancing bullet wound on her tiny frame because, uh, well, watch out for more badass Yakuza assassins and career torturers! Good for Hayek for shooting guns and looking great after aging out of her countless arm-candy roles, but she deserves more than the kind of gorehound exercise where you find yourself going, well, at least the blood effects don’t look too cartoony. She deserves a John Wick of her own.