A premise seemingly culled from any number of fanboy wet dreams winds up shooting mostly blanks in “Everly,” a bloody and derivative action vehicle that not even the spectacle of a scantily clad, gun-toting Salma Hayek is enough to fully sustain. Playing out in something close to real time as a desperate prostitute tries to bust her way out of a nightmarish gangster stronghold, shooting and slicing her way through hordes of Japanese yakuza, this slickly assembled exploitation-movie wankfest gets some mileage out of its star’s fully committed performance, though not enough to offset the grim, monotonous tenor of the proceedings — or the glib, fetishistic recycling of Asian thriller tropes. Hayek’s attachment will ensure ever-healthy VOD, though fewer eyeballs (to cite one of many tortured body parts) will be drawn to Radius-TWC/Dimension’s Feb. 27 theatrical release.
Director Joe Lynch (who helmed the 2013 horror-comedy “Knights of Badassdom”) and screenwriter Yale Hannon do lay out the narrative particulars with an admirable degree of economy: The movie opens with the sound of distant screams, then a nifty overhead shot of a bathroom where a naked but discreetly framed Everly (Hayek) seeks momentary refuge from her latest round of degradation — the kind she’s endured, we later learn, for the four years she’s spent imprisoned in the same apartment, forced to work as a sex slave for a powerful yakuza syndicate. From the start, then, the filmmakers court pity and mild titillation in the same breath, doing their best not to leer excessively while acknowledging the honest appeal of a beautiful woman wielding heavy artillery in little more than a slip.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Everly has chosen this moment to turn the tables on the rapists in her apartment, triggering the first eruption of cartoonishly over-the-top violence and sustaining a few flesh wounds in the process. (Most of the wounds here seem to be of the fleshy variety, given the numbing frequency with which presumed-dead attackers suddenly leap back to life, as if they’d been felled by paper cuts.) But she only succeeds in attracting the playfully sadistic attention of powerful gang leader Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), who promises a handsome reward to any of her equally desperate prostitute neighbors who succeeds in taking her out. That tactic fails in spectacularly bloody fashion (“That’s a lot of dead whores,” an onlooker notes, a line that doesn’t get funnier with repetition). But Taiko knows the real way to get to his prey is by threatening Everly’s mother (a fine Laura Cepeda) and her young daughter (Aisha Ayamah), neither of whom she’s seen in ages, and whom she somehow persuades to make their way into the heavily guarded complex.
Confining our heroine (and much of the action) to her apartment, the layout of which is neatly conveyed by Steve Gainer’s lensing and Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design, “Everly” splits the difference between the make-it-out-alive claustrophobia of actioners like “Die Hard” and “The Raid: Redemption,” and the maternal revenge quest of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” even if it never summons anywhere near the same tension or momentum. Like many of Tarantino’s movies (as well as Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” and last year’s Scarlett Johansson starrer “Lucy”), Lynch’s film freely samples the iconography of extreme Asian cinema, whether by having Everly do battle with armies of black-suited yakuza, or flanking her with fearsome Noh-masked ninjas while she’s being operated on by a sort of Nipponese Mengele known as the Sadist (Togo Igawa).
Along with the central presence of Hayek, that makes “Everly” one of the more diversely cast genre items to come along in a while, even if the movie’s sense of cultural appreciation has all the nuance of a meat-grinder: The exotic tropes go in one end and bloody hamburger comes out the other. Working with a strong below-the-line team, Lynch stages and shoots action with the requisite style, which is to say he can cover the walls of an apartment or an elevator shaft with arterial splatter as adequately as the next director. What he can’t do, in the end, is make sense of a protagonist whom Hayek plays as a compelling if mystifying combo of tremulous vulnerability and (unexplained) killer prowess. In a similar sense, the entire movie never coheres, asking us to fear for the life of a 5-year-old girl one minute, playing vintage holiday music over a bloodbath the next; our heroine’s name suggests a very likely nod to the Everly Brothers’ 1971 tune “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.”