Writer-director Chris Fisher flirts with over-the-top exaggeration so often during “Meeting Evil” that auds might wish he’d gone all the way and dialed everything up to 11. Indeed, some scenes suggest Fisher actually intended his contrived suspenser as a straight-faced parody of those overplotted and mostly indistinguishable neo-noir thrillers that are staples of third-tier film fests, latenight cable TV and vidstore bargain bins. Limited theatrical exposure will be fleeting; as a home-screen attraction, however, the pic could provide modest amusement for indulgent viewers with a taste for tales of loquacious killers and not-so-innocent bystanders.
As Richie, a spiffily dressed psycho who is by turns ingratiating and intimidating, Samuel L. Jackson offers a performance that could be labeled Swift’s Premium and sold by the pound. And that’s pretty much what the plot requires as Richie coerces John (Luke Wilson), a financially strapped family man, into joining him as an unwitting companion on a daylong murder spree.
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Newly fired from his job as a real-estate agent, John is deep in debt — a fact Fisher helpfully illustrates by showing “Final Notice” stamped on scads of unpaid bills — and drinking too much. Even worse, he has grown meekly submissive after repeated failures. In fact, it’s not until he notices the trail of corpses he and Richie are leaving in their wake that John begins to demonstrate any sort of gumption.
By that time, unfortunately, John’s former mistress (a delectable and resourceful Peyton List) has been forced to join them on their wild ride. And even a massive uptick in his testicular fortitude might not help John very much when Richie turns his attention to the hapless guy’s wife (Leslie Bibb) and children.
By keeping almost all of the violence offscreen and depicting many of the victims as worthy of being victimized, Fisher enables Jackson’s sicko to come off as perversely appealing for lengthy stretches. True, the actor’s hambone ranting and riffing is familiar shtick by this point in his career. But it propels the plot efficiently and serves as effective counterpoint to Wilson’s alternating currents of pent-up rage and full-blown terror.
As an odd couple of cops on Richie’s trail, Muse Watson and Tracie Thoms rely heavily on quirky bits of business (chain smoking and sass, respectively) to enliven stock characters. Bibb doesn’t have to try nearly so hard as John’s wife, since the script, based on a novel by Thomas Berger (“Neighbors,” “Little Big Man”), gives her one or two surprises to spring.
Fisher — whose previous credits include “S. Darko” (2009), a direct-to-video sequel to cult-fave “Donnie Darko” — ratchets up the intensity with harsh lighting and self-conscious camera angles, so that more than a few melodramatic scenes are quite funny, intentionally or not.
It probably won’t go unnoticed that “Meeting Evil” is reaching theaters (after a warmup in the VOD bullpen) the same weekend that another film featuring Jackson makes its North American debut. You could say the actor is Bruce Banner in that one, but he Hulks out here.