It’s been 17 long years since “Rules of Attraction” director Roger Avary has released a film, during which time he was involved in a deadly car crash, charged with gross vehicle manslaughter, saw a work furlough translated into actual prison time, and watched things go south with Video Archives amigo Quentin Tarantino over the “Pulp Fiction” credit fiasco. Those are setbacks that might break the spine of a lesser scribe, but in Avary’s case, it seems to have strengthened his resolve to write — although until now, virtually nothing has been produced to show for it. Not for lack of trying. Some people are good at directing movies, and others are good at getting movies to direct. Avary hustled a handful of projects, and while any of them sounded like a promising return, somehow, “Lucky Day” was the first to get made.
The movie marks a curious comeback, a hyper-stylized hit-man story of the sort that became so ubiquitous in the wake of “Pulp Fiction” — hardly the thing one expects from such an influential auteur. Where Avary’s other films have innovated and unsettled, this one’s clever but safe, apart from an over-the-top performance from Crispin Glover, who — speakeeng een a French aksuhnt that sounds like a cross between Jean Reno and Pepé Le Pew — achieves heights of eccentricity that feel extreme even by the cult character actor’s own idiosyncratic standards. “I am not a car thief,” drawls dapper psychopath Luc Chaltiel after slicing a hipster’s throat (and beard). “I am much worse.” And so he is: Luc represents Avary’s tongue-in-cheek version of a high-efficiency killing machine: Picture Anton Chigurh with a much better wardrobe but comparably off-kilter haircut.
Though the crisp, shot-on-digital execution looks slicker than Avary’s previous features, “Lucky Day” doesn’t feel like something that could have been written this century. There’s a Rip Van Winkle quality here, as if Avary awakened this script from a decades-long cryogenic freeze and hardly bothered to update it. (How else to interpret the scene when one of Luc’s victims reaches for a rotary phone, placing a call answered by a flip-style mobile phone on the other end? “Operator, get me Klondike-5 5555!”) Frankly, many of the ideas feel like gags conceived around the time of his 1993 Paris-set heist movie “Killing Zoe.”
In that film, a safecracker named Zed (Eric Stoltz) falls for an escort named Zoe (Julie Delpy) on the eve of a very bloody bank robbery. In “Lucky Day,” a safecracker with a romantic streak (Luke Bracey) exits prison intending to make things up to his French wife (Nina Dobrev). Zed is now Red, Zoe is now Chloe, but the resemblance between the characters is so strong, one could be forgiven for assuming this was a 20-years-late sequel of sorts. (Listen carefully and you may even recognize Stoltz’s voice over the prison loudspeaker as the film opens.) The movie alternates between Luc’s arrival from Paris and Red’s return from prison, taking its time to reveal how the two connect.
Naturally, it’s hard not to read something personal in Avary’s choice to make his main character an ex-con. It’s not that prison has radically changed the character or his creator — although how could it not? — so much as the experience has reordered both of their priorities. After countless hours spent pacing his prison cell, Red is determined to be a better man to Chloe and their daughter, Beatrice (Ella Ryan Quinn, looking so much like Natalie Portman’s hit-man mascot in “The Professional,” it can’t possibly be a coincidence), who insists on speaking French to her father, who doesn’t understand the language, but also faux-naively narrates the film in her childlike English.
“Lucky Day” belongs to a genre that doesn’t put a particularly high value on life, brutally killing side characters in clever and/or spectacular ways for a laugh, and yet, it’s not without soul. Few though they are, Avary’s films are genuinely about something. His best movie, 2002’s brilliant but disturbing Bret Easton Ellis adaptation “Rules of Attraction” captured the impact that selfish collegiate hedonism has on others. “Lucky Day” centers on a different kind of maturity, involving a character learning to manage his anger and put his wife and child ahead of his own ego.
There’s a scene rather late in the film when Red’s previously heartless parole officer (Clifton Collins Jr.) catches everyone by surprise, suddenly breaking into an existential monologue: “I got a hard job,” he begins. “I ain’t a cop, and I ain’t a social worker, but I gotta be both. There’s one thing I’ve learned about in this job, and that’s when people are in love, there’s a chance.” Although these words might sound corny coming from a filmmaker less committed to the underlying sentiment, it’s essentially the same philosophy that makes “True Romance” such a powerful screenplay. And guess what: As it turns out, a lot of the DNA for that movie (which Tony Scott directed from Tarantino’s script) traces back to Avary’s unproduced “The Open Road” — which might explain why, early on, Tomandandy’s score openly quotes the theme from “True Romance” (which Hans Zimmer himself lifted from “Badlands”).
While Avary can’t match Tarantino’s gift for character and dialogue (can anyone?), he’s inventive as ever in twisting genre tropes to shock and surprise audiences. “Lucky Day” errs on the side of being too cutesy, including in the casting of Bracey and Dobrev, who aren’t particularly believable as a reformed criminal or an emerging visual artist, respectively — although the latter pays off outrageously when Chloe’s gallery show winds up splattered with the blood of her critics.
“Lucky Day” doesn’t feel like a film by somebody who’s holding a grudge, although Avary has left enough clues between the lines of this overdue comeback for careful viewers to piece together his contributions to several earlier Tarantino films — little echoes of ideas for which he didn’t necessarily receive proper credit. The trouble is, apart from Glover’s unforgettably weird caricature, “Lucky Day” isn’t an especially memorable offering. It’s enough to get Avary back in the game, one hopes, but considering his talent, this is hardly the film his fans have been waiting for.