It’s great to see a genre movie that dives right into what it wants to be and still manages to surprise. Hotel Artemis had the semblance of a fun crime thriller, packing in enough action to make up for what looked to be a series of interactions between stock character-types played by actors relishing the chance to mug for the camera. The thing is, writer/director Drew Pearce barely has any room for action, as the film is almost entirely focused on the various characters we meet, and spends a majority of time letting the audience watch them interact. The dystopian LA setting is a nice touch as well, but I was practically thrown by the attempts this film made to make me care as much as I did.
Set in the near-future, Jodie Foster stars as a nurse in charge of a secret hospital for criminals. She has a tough guy for an orderly who goes by Everest (Dave Bautista) and is currently tending to rooms for a French assassin (Sofia Boutella) and a pompous arms dealer (Charlie Day). The latest guests are a couple of bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry), who took some hits on their way out and need to be patched up while laying low. The plot gets complicated further by escalated rioting taking place in the city, along with the impending arrival of an injured crime lord played by Jeff Goldblum.
The nature of a film like this had me expecting something along the lines of Free Fire, a recent movie that has plenty of fun letting the actors put on costumes and accents but doesn’t stop with the gunfights and other action, following an initial third of setup. Instead, Hotel Artemis has much more character focus. While there isn’t much mystery in the story, the film practically unfolds like a game of clue. Each scene sets up the characters in various ways and provides hints at who they are. We learn plenty about the Hotel Artemis’ geography and the rules Foster’s Nurse is very set on not breaking. There’s more tension between characters than anything else, and by the time the action does arrive, it’s only as a natural conclusion, following all the time spent getting to understand this world.
I was engaged by all of this. Thanks to a solid cast and the sort of tone that makes you fully aware that it’s okay to have fun, there’s plenty to get wrapped up in when it comes to the stakes of the film while being fully aware that it’s ultimately just a movie. By that I mean it’s easy to accept the drama of Foster’s character because she’s so clued into the role she’s playing that feeling for what she’s going through is both affecting and part of the clever trick this genre flick is playing on you to keep you involved. I dug it, and it’s no surprise that a two-time Oscar-winner could handle herself here.
It may seem silly, but this is an actor’s showcase, which makes it easier to see why Foster would sign on for a film like this. It’s not high art, but she gets to play a layered character in the midst of a grubby sci-fi thriller. Some of the actors lean a bit too hard on caricature (Day and Zachary Quinto come to mind), but they are still fun to watch. The rest are entirely into this film’s vibe. Brown may be playing a straight arrow, but he has a certain edge that keeps you focused when he’s around. Boutella is reliable as the steely-eyed assassin that handles the little action that there is quite well. Bautista continues to show a great handle of comic timing, while also serving as an imposing figure. Even Goldblum gets to play a few degrees different than his standard type of character.
For a film that seems to function as a unique blend of John Wick, The Purge, and Assault on Precinct 13, it’s impressive that Pearce can craft a feature that feels so fresh and exciting. Working mostly within a single location, there’s enough done with the world-building to make me just curious enough about how the society in Hotel Artemis works, and yet I’m still fine leaving the film to have its own sense of mystique. I mean, it says a lot that a movie can utilize the same 3D printer for organs and guns, and not have me focus too hard on those implications.
This is to say the film functions well as a showcase for stylish direction and snappy dialogue. Hotel Artemis is the sort of film that proudly shows off its high concept and holds onto its dignity. That is made possible by Pearce’s way of bringing the movie to the edge of farce and placing so many great things on that line, such as good actors, assured direction, and a fun handle on things like production design. For a film designed to feel so moody, with action seemingly ready to arrive at any second, Hotel Artemis does best by having the audience check-in and keeping them amused by all the bells and whistles it has to offer. Make a reservation.