You won’t find the Hotel Artemis listed on Yelp, or in any Los Angeles travel guide. The off-the-books establishment was once a posh Art Nouveau landmark, with custom wood accents and beautiful floor-to-ceiling murals in each of its rooms — Acapulco, Waikiki, Niagara, etc. By the summer of 2028, when hotshot Hollywood screenwriter Drew Pearce’s directorial debut takes place, nobody wants to stay there, not even the establishment’s members-only clientele. You see, the Hotel Artemis isn’t a hotel at all but a secret hospital for criminals. Got shot pulling a job in downtown L.A.? Only then do you want to make a reservation with the Nurse (Jodie Foster), who keeps a room ready for just such emergencies.
An over-styled calling-card project from a writer whose vague credits on “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” and “Iron Man 3” (both shared with the directors of those films) obscure how many of his contributions actually made it on-screen, “Hotel Artemis” has the elegant simplicity of a quality B movie wrapped up in a self-consciously — and somewhat overcompensatingly — “cool” piece of genre entertainment. It boasts snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and a gorgeously designed central location but doesn’t quite know what to do with any of the above.
Charitably speaking, even if the script was written several years back, Pearce’s hotel — which comes with a long list of rules the patrons must follow, like “No cops” and “Don’t kill the other guests” — will inevitably draw comparisons to the Continental, as featured in the “John Wick” movies. This unfortunate resemblance distracts from the rather original notion that the Artemis is a clinic for lawbreakers (one rather conspicuously hidden beneath a 20-foot neon sign), and that a membership is the best insurance policy criminals can buy — whereas nonmembers are left to bleed to death on its stoop.
The film opens amid “the most violent riot in Los Angeles history” (budget constraints being what they are, it is described as such via news coverage, and accented by footage of Griffith Observatory on fire), as a group of thieves attempt to crack a downtown bank vault. Failing that, their fast-thinking leader (suave star-in-the-making Sterling K. Brown, sporting a snappy waistcoat and polygon-shaped face mask) adapts to the situation, deciding instead to steal from the “maids and grass cutters” who’ve been sent, at great personal danger, to deposit their millionaire bosses’ most precious valuables.
The gang escapes the robbery unscathed but has the bad luck of facing off with heavily armed riot police in a back alley, leaving everyone gravely injured or dead. Fortunately for them, the Hotel Artemis is just around the corner, setting up a lean John Carpenter-like premise where the surviving members wait out the riot in a safe house that proves to be anything but. At the center of this highly combustible situation is Foster, jumpy as we’ve ever seen her, but still commanding enough to rattle off the rules and make goons twice her size believe it would be unwise to test what happens if they’re broken. Except, movies like this depend on the disintegration of natural order, meaning Pearce has invented this place for the express purpose of testing its limits.
That sounds good on paper, and much of it looks great on-screen — thanks to the outstanding production design by Ramsey Avery, who cut his teeth working on such futuristic projects as “Minority Report” and “Tomorrowland,” and does a remarkable job here on a far smaller budget — but what should have been a Swiss-clock-precise thriller instead feels more like a clunky pile of clichés, undermined by loose ends and unanswered questions. There’s plenty here to suggest that Pearce can generate creative ideas and fortune-cookie-terse dialogue (as when an assassin played by Sofia Boutella tells the nurse, “You fix people, I break them”), though he seems overwhelmed by his own relatively self-contained world.
Whereas a lean, mean post-heist standoff would have been enough for most movies (certainly, Quentin Tarantino launched his directing career with an inventive spin on just that in “Reservoir Dogs”), Pearce overloads “Hotel Artemis” with all sorts of extraneous conflict, most of it centered on the arrival of an ominous figure known as the Wolf King. Described as a ruthless crime boss who drowns people who upset him (and played by an actor whose identity is more fun to discover in the moment), the Wolf King looms over the first two acts in such an intimidating way, it might have been wiser to save the big reveal for a sequel, since his introduction as a potential patient actually makes the film feel smaller.
Not only does the Wolf King own the Artemis, but several of the characters have unfinished business with him. The bank robbers may not have reached the vault, but they unwittingly stole $18 million in yellow diamonds from one of his associates, meaning that the two survivors (Brown and Brian Tyree Henry) might want to clear out before he arrives. Putting the French accent in femme fatale, Boutella’s character reveals early on that she injured herself in order to gain access to the Artemis, where she plans to pull off a high-level hit. No prizes for guessing who her mark might be. And to confuse it all, the Nurse faces cumbersome flashbacks to her son’s death, plus a distracting subplot involving an injured cop (Jenny Slate), which all connect back to the Wolf King in a wholly unnecessary way.
That still leaves a handful of bonus characters for the movie to juggle, including wrestler and “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Dave Bautista as an orderly and screechy-voiced comedian Charlie Day as a smarmy arms dealer modeled after creeps played by Joe Pesci and Joe Pantoliano in previous films, overcrowding the film’s 93-minute run time. Somewhere (if only in Pearce’s head), a much longer and more satisfying version of this movie exists, but it’s hard to ignore that the one being released in theaters feels like a salvage job, heavy on the exposition — drawn out by a five-minute time bomb that takes far longer to detonate — then weirdly rushed through its explosive finale, during which most of the characters simply disappear amid the action. As debuts go, Pearce deserves points for ambition, but loses just as many for stealing from other movies. And we all know what the Wolf King does to thieves.