These days, searching for solace amid a global pandemic and nationwide protests, film critics frequently find themselves referring to “the movie we need right now,” lavishing that clichéd description on anything that offers the slightest comfort or context in a world turned upside down. Let me assure you, Netflix’s “The Last Days of American Crime” is not that movie. In fact, this gory, excessive and frequently incoherent near-future heist film from Luc Besson protégé Olivier Megaton (“Taken 2,” “Transporter 3”) is pretty much the opposite: It’s an offensive eyesore in which looting and anarchy are treated as window dressing, law and order come in the form of mind control, and police brutality is so pervasive as to warrant a trigger warning.
Perhaps some would take comfort in such a distraction, although for anyone paying the slightest attention to what’s going on in the real world, it’s hard to stomach a film that so frivolously engages with circumstances in which overzealous police are no longer necessary. That radical advance comes thanks to something called the American Peace Initiative, a “controversial” new government program involving a radio signal that literally makes it impossible for citizens to commit illegal acts. Just try anything, and you’ll be struck with a crippling pain direct to the frontal lobe, effectively paralyzed mid-crime.
Most of the movie takes place during the days immediately leading up to the implementation of the country’s ambitious (and totally implausible) API signal, as Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt), heir to the biggest crime syndicate in the city, recruits small-time bank robber Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramírez) to pull off a heist precisely timed to the moment the system goes into effect. It’s a not-at-all precise plan hinged to a way-more-complicated-than-necessary setup, all of which bogs down an overlong and inelegant two-and-a-half-hour film. Even the heavy use of voiceover (full of overripe cherries like “The government was learning, tuning their little box of horrors, playing Jesus with people’s brains, and we were all their guinea pigs”) fails to convince that this system ever would have gotten out of beta.
Think about it: Flip this puppy on, and suddenly people are frozen whenever they’re about to do something verboten — a strategy that would theoretically make misdemeanors such as jaywalking and speeding 10 times more dangerous than they would’ve been before. Some people (the police, mostly, represented here by a single cop played by “District 9” star Sharlto Copley) get implants that make them immune, although in theory, it’s not illegal for them to shoot criminals caught in the act (which is one of those loopholes no one wants to see at this moment in history).
How any of this is supposed to work doesn’t make sense for a moment, and it hurts the brain just to imagine what screenwriter Karl Gajdusek (who co-wrote the relatively elegant “Oblivion”) had in mind. The whole thing was adapted from a graphic novel by Greg Tocchini and Rick Remender, although the source material couldn’t possibly have been this convoluted with its double and triple crosses and elaborate loose ends — like the laughably sadistic interrogation that opens the film (“It was your boy … Johnny Dee. He gave you up for one more taste”), which relates to the rest of what follows who knows how.
The least convincing part of the equation is the one that suggests the API signal would suddenly render the police unnecessary, and sure enough, the movie’s all about characters finding exceptions to the system. That essentially makes “The Last Days of American Crime” a high-concept sci-fi movie in which the message seems to be “Here’s a terrible idea for how to solve the country’s crime problem. Now let us explain why it would never work.”
Strip away the speculative police-state situation, and you’ve got a fairly basic love triangle at play. Cash and Bricke are smitten by the same woman, the thoroughly unimpressive Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster), a hacker who uses her sex appeal to play all sides. She’s sleeping with both men, and also working an angle with the FBI that essentially guarantees their plan — semi-improvised as it is — won’t go as described. Her role during the heist is to show up at the signal tower and seduce the computer geek responsible, while her accomplices steal a fortune straight from the money factory.
There’s a separate plot where all the currency in the country is switching over the same night the Peace Initiative kicks in, but don’t ask me to explain it. If I understand correctly, Bricke starts the movie with $5 million, but sees a chance to steal $1 billion. He also has access to a HP printer that can make convincing counterfeit bills. And all money is about to rendered worthless at midnight.
Ramírez is tough enough to withstand having his nipple burned off by a lit cigar, but fails to convey whatever smoldering passion he’s supposed to have for Shelby. Looking strung out and wild-eyed in his designer duds, Pitt comes across incrementally less scuzzy than Jared Leto’s Joker did in “Suicide Squad,” just unpredictable enough to make things interesting — although good luck following this character’s convoluted motives. It’s fun to watch these two load up a garbage truck with what would have seemed like a lot of money mere months ago, before the news was filled with multi-trillion-dollar relief measures.
In light of everything that’s going on, “The Last Days of American Crime” seems woefully out of touch, inadvertently offensive (a brutal fight scene in which Copley chokes Shelby seems oblivious to the legacy of real-world police brutality) and like some sloppy relic of what once passed for entertainment. Will we ever settle for such nonsense again?