Synopsis – TERMINAL follows two assassins with a sinister mission, a fatally ill teacher, an enigmatic janitor and a waitress with a double life. Murderous consequences unravel as their lives meet at the hands of a criminal mastermind wanting revenge.
My Take – It’s simple, if you want to produce a sexy looking film, no matter the genre or the plot, just set it in a dystopia inspired setting with neon lights, a style made popular with the success of recent action fueled flicks like John Wick and Atomic Blonde, and brilliant science fiction’s like Blade Runner 2049. Here, Vaughn Stein, who worked as second or third assistant director on projects like Snow White and the Huntsman, World War Z, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, among others, marks his debut as a director/writer, and takes the above mentioned neon killer aesthetic to punish levels by maxing out the technicolor aesthetic.
While the film may arguably go down as one of the most good looking films of the year, as the visually stunning colors and dazzling cinematography do provide the much required eye candy, however, like most neo noir films, this one too lacks enough substance to match its dazzling looks. Written as a stylized blend of every aesthetic and formulas used by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, the film tries really hard to provide the hypnotic roller coaster ride as promised in the trailers by taking us through a seedy, neon-drenched world of crime and dishonor.
Yet unfortunately, it seemed director Stein is so fascinated by his film’s slick look that he forgets to make his audience care about (or even understand) his film’s characters or story line. This is especially disappointing because it wastes another memorable performance from Margot Robbie, who fresh off one of her Oscar nominated performance in I, Tonya, shines in yet another role, and as expected, the moment she is not in the screen, the film just begins to derails. There is talent and ingenuity here, but it’s a shame, that none of it pays off.
Set in a train station, the story follows five characters who are in the city for reasons that mostly pertain to death. The first being Annie (Margot Robbie), a femme fatale, who’s looking to become the premier within her line of work, which means getting in good with the enigmatic Mr. Franklin, a local crime lord who no one has seen but only heard his voice. To win an exclusive deal with him, Annie establishes a deal with him, that if she can eliminate all of her competition in the city, he’ll only use her for future jobs. With her primary two targets being two hit men named Alfred (Max Irons) and Vince (Dexter Fletcher), Annie serves them both as a waitress as the train terminal diner called End of the Line and a dancer at the local strip club called White Rabbit Club.
Meanwhile, Bill (Simon Pegg), a former English teacher with a terminal illness, has also arrived in the city with thoughts of suicide, and in order to catch the next train to an unknown destination, decides to wait, in End of the Line where he strike up a lengthy conversation about his fate with Annie. All this while, Clinton (Mike Myers), the station’s mysterious disabled janitor, creeps through the train terminal, all the while being more shrewd and observant than he lets on. What follows is a series of double-crosses, an assortment of puzzles (involving briefcases and phone calls from Mr. Franklin), and plenty of secrets to be revealed.
The film starts off quite hazy and for the first 20 minutes, it’s quite difficult to make out what actually is happening, and then slowly begins to take shape as the story begins to properly revolve and complete its messy puzzles, all leading up to a convoluted final act. The problem here is that there’s a lot going on here, but none of it compelling. Director Stein hopes you’ll be intrigued enough to wait around for the reveal, as a result he just doesn’t know how to do spend 60 minutes of the remaining run time, .so he jumps back and forth in time, muddying things even more, all the while parading Margot Robbie in a veritable catalogue of fetish wear—naughty nurse uniforms and saucy waitress outfits, Louise Brooks bobs and seamed stockings with snakes stitched up the back.
Too much of the script hinges on the payoff, which seems highly influenced by films like Usual Suspects and Lucky Number Slevin director Stein telegraphs the film’s two big twists long before the big reveals so the payoff is muted. That leads to one of those frustrating cinematic experiences where you’re waiting for the characters to catch up to the destination you already know is coming. When it’s not establishing these inevitable betrayals and revelations, doling out in pieces how these characters are more than superficially connected, Stein‘s screenplay mostly focuses on the generically hardened and occasionally clever ways in which these characters talk to each other.
There’s an extended hypothetical discussion of how Bill could end his life, with the possibilities playing out before him through the diner’s windows. The assassins’ subplot isn’t as engaging as it’s clear early on that Annie is pitting them against each other. While Vince is the tough guy of the assassin duo, offering insults and threats, Alfred is almost a hopeless romantic when it comes to the fetching Annie, who with her demented sense of humor shows only the surface of how twisted she actually is. In hindsight, director Stein probably should have kept Annie’s intentions a secret from the audience and not reveal she’s concocting this massive plot from the start. Cluing viewers in so early ruins the surprise factor that easily could have developed in the final act.
The film is a limp throwback to its predecessors, relying on a vaguely-defined cool factor to carry the audience through its entwined, largely disparate plots. Most importantly it feels less like its own confident story than a perplexing rehash of the neo-noir trappings of its influences, mainly as characters speak in a certain wise-guy type of way, and it seems that director Stein’s script is more concerned with giving his cookie-cutter archetypes unique quips than telling the audience who they are or why we should care. Annie is the centerpiece of the narrative flaw, as she struts about the film with a 1920s pout and hairdo and a decidedly 21st-century view on sexuality. Though she gets a hastily-sketched backstory, Annie is little more than a sexy sociopath, she’s also a sassy waitress and a stripper as well as an assassin because why not, just throw in everything. Along with Annie, Myers’s character, a hobbling janitor with crooked teeth, also gets his fair sheer amount of screen time.
Although, at first it’s not clear exactly where he fits into the picture, but then come the twists, as it turns out, there’s been a reason why we’ve been seeing the janitor all over the place. He’s been sent by Mr. Franklyn to give Annie a hand, or rather, to keep tabs on her and when he limps back to the door labeled as the janitor’s closet after all three of Annie’s targets have bitten the bullet, it’s not to a closet filled with mops and cleaning supplies, but a surveillance room, where he masquerades as you guessed it, Mr. Franklyn. The film also oozes with try-hard edginess, from its shoehorned, done-to-death Alice in Wonderland references to its eye-roll-inducing, sexy-dangerous aesthetic. Where the script falters, the film’s visuals and cool noir style more than warrant a viewing.
Here, cinematographer Christopher Ross brings neon lighting to new heights, as primary colors drench each venue in vibrant hues and enhance the film’s vintage-dystopian aesthetic. The city itself is at the heart of writer/director Vaughn Stein‘s debut feature, as it’s a place that looks like the end of the line for any wayward traveler—at first because its atmosphere seems enticing for the morbidly curious and ultimately because the odds of survival in this place seem slim. The bright and colorful lights of the signs for various establishments do a good enough job covering up the decay of this city from a distance. The sparse locales look like something out of BioShock, mixed with a darker version of Blade Runner 2049 and all aided by the film’s decidedly old-fashioned art direction.
Thankfully, the performances are fine enough in matching the heightened style of the material. While Margot Robbie‘s British accent comes off as too forced and rehearsed, she provides a fun, sultry performance as she continues branching out. Even though it’s puzzling to think why Robbie would have chosen to producer, this film thorough her LuckyChap banner, I must say, the film is blessed to have her, and would likely be insufferable with a less compelling lead. It’s also nice to see Simon Pegg take on a more serious character than his usual. While his arc doesn’t justify the set up, he manages to play his part well. Mike Myers too, another actor known mostly for his comic roles, gets to flex his acting range, by in cooperating a character that mixes both his comedic chops and his dramatic skills. Meanwhile, Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons are alright in their respective roles. On the whole, ‘Terminal’ is a messy and exhausting thriller which despite a wacky story never manages to intrigue.
Directed – Vaughn Stein
Rated – R
Run Time – 90 minutes