“It’s a bit like Appalachia: You can go from two kids in a fistfight to the emergency room real fast,” advises one concerned citizen in “Homefront,” a tale of backwoods retribution that resembles Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” transplanted to “Deliverance” country, where feuding parents prefer outright war to wars of words. But what sounds like a veritable B-movie wet dream — with that master of the subzero scowl, Jason Statham, starring in a screenplay written by Sylvester Stallone — turns out to be considerably less than the sum of its parts: a listless programmer in the “Walking Tall” mode, minus the ebullient spark of Statham’s “Crank” and “Transporter” franchises and Stallone’s own “Expendables” pics. Offered as Thanksgiving counter-programming by distrib Open Road, the pic may carve up modest biz with the shoot-your-own-turkey crowd, but should be available as a stocking stuffer by Christmas.
The ever-prolific Stallone (who has “Escape Plan” still in theaters and “Grudge Match” due at year’s end) adapted “Homefront” from a novel by crime writer Chuck Logan — one in a series featuring the character of ex-Minnesota cop Phil Broker — originally envisioning the project as a starring vehicle for himself before passing the torch to Statham, who ably fills the character’s ass-kicking shoes. When we first meet him, Broker is an undercover DEA agent (by way of Interpol, so as to allow for the actor’s Brit accent) about to snag a gang of meth-running Louisiana bikers, an op that ends with Broker’s cover (and several square blocks of Shreveport) blown sky-high, and the son of the gang honcho riddled with bullets. (In a wry play on Statham’s trademark shaven-headed appearance, the undercover Broker sports a long, straggly mane of ’80s-style rocker hair.)
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We then flash forward two years to find Broker, now a widower and single dad, having hung up his badge (and wig) and relocated to sleepy Rayville, La., travel beyond state lines evidently prohibited by the movie’s tax-credit financing. But if Broker is a master of many elite skills, camouflage isn’t one of them — not in this good-ol’-boy bayou backwater, and especially not after 10-year-old chip-off-the-old-block Maddy (newcomer Izabela Vidovic) flattens a bully on the school playground. And things only get worse when an after-school parent conference with the offended Klum family ends with Broker giving the bully’s belligerent dad (Marcus Hester) a beatdown of his own.
That’s when mama Klum (Kate Bosworth) steps in and asks her brother, small-time meth dealer Gator (James Franco), for a favor: “Mess with their heads like you do everyone else.” And Franco, who’s had an even busier year than Stallone (acting in eight movies and directing three), gets a grand entrance here — taking a baseball bat to a house full of tweaked-out squatters — that raises one’s hopes for what this always-inventive actor might do with such a role. Soon, Gator is playing his menacing pranks on Broker’s homestead, but when he stumbles onto the ex-lawman’s true identity, he decides to up the ante. With a little help from his barmaid girlfriend (Winona Ryder), he reaches out to Broker’s old biker foe, Danny T (Chuck Zito), and proposes a trade: Broker’s whereabouts in exchange for access to Danny T’s statewide meth distribution network. And with the ineffectual local sheriff (Clancy Brown) on the take, it falls to Broker to fend for himself.
There are few if any pleasures in movies today as reliable as watching Statham lay waste to a succession of toothless in-breds and other unworthy suitors with a few swift punches and well-timed kicks — and “Homefront” offers no such shortage, including one particularly artful instance of death by pitchfork. But given the available elements here, the movie is a surprisingly joyless affair, lacking the grisly deadpan humor of Statham’s best vehicles or any real sense of peril. (Gator’s minions behave so stupidly that we never doubt Broker could dispense with all of them with both hands tied behind his back — which, in one scene, he actually does). Nor does director-for-hire Gary Fleder (“Runaway Jury,” “Don’t Say a Word”) help matters by making an incoherent jumble of most of the action scenes, reducing his prime asset — Statham — to a blur of quick cuts and swoosh pans, especially during the protracted, murkily lensed bayou climax. Rarely has one so pined for the stolid, point-and-shoot professionalism of J. Lee Thompson in his late-career Cannon Films/Charles Bronson period.
If Bosworth proves to be “Homefront’s” greatest surprise, sporting a meth addict’s wasted physique and a white-trash stridency that belies an inner canniness, Franco qualifies as its biggest disappointment. Though he brings a certain snarling menace to Gator, he never really sinks his teeth into the role (the way he did with his latter-day Big Bad Wolf character in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”), and whatever private amusement slumming it as a one-dimensional (and not very bright) baddie may have held for the actor, it’s lost on the audience. Mostly, Franco just seems to be biding his time here, bored with the part and the movie that contains it.