A quick glance at its supporting cast — a lineup that includes such notables as Mickey Rourke, Lou Diamond Phillips, Penelope Ann Miller and Sean Astin — might lead you to suspect “Adverse” has only recently been retrieved from a time capsule originally sealed in the mid-to-late 1990s. And, indeed, if it weren’t for the occupation of the protagonist — he’s a rideshare driver, not a cabbie — and the abundance of smartphone text messaging, director Brian A. Metcalf’s modestly diverting thriller probably could pass for a direct-to-video concoction from that era. There’s something positively meta going on here, though you may have to be a hard-core B-movie buff to fully appreciate it.
Lead player Thomas Nicholas dials it up to 11 — and, occasionally, 12 — with his intense portrayal of Ethan, a young man who starts out trying to keep his temper in check after a fuzzily defined brush with the law necessitates his periodic reporting to a no-BS social worker (Phillips). Ethan works the late-night shift for an Uber-esque L.A. company to provide for himself and Mia (Kelly Arjen), his rebellious 16-year-old sister, who’s been in his care since the death of their mother (Miller, in flashbacks.) Despite his best efforts as her guardian, however, he worries, with ample justification, that Mia is spending too much time, and doing too many drugs, with her scuzzy boyfriend (Jake T. Austin) and other bad influences.
Working from his own script, a patchwork of contrivances and coincidences, director Metcalf kicks off the first-act set-up by having Ethan pick up a significant passenger: Kaden (Rourke), a philosophical crime boss whose failing health has not yet diminished his control of drug-dealing and loansharking enterprises. It would be overstating the case to say a close friendship immediately blooms. But they part on cordial terms — and that casual connection comes in handy when, a few scenes later, Mia endures grievous bodily harm.
Ethan winds up hired as an on-call driver for Kaden’s underlings, an occupation that allows him easy access to the express lane of the vengeance trail. Yes, you guessed it: Mia and her boyfriend were overdue on their payments to one of Kaden’s sleazier associates (played, over the top, by Metcalf), who in turn was late in his payments to Kaden, and all of them paid dearly for their tardiness. Ethan works his way up the chain of command — sometimes patiently, sometimes furiously — with just enough speed to keep things interesting, and just enough stealth so that it takes a while for Kaden to realize his workforce is being decimated.
In terms of viscerally exciting mayhem, the highlight of “Adverse” is an impressively sustained, borderline-comical sequence in which Ethan wields a tire iron with as much efficiency as Choi Min-sik demonstrated with a claw hammer in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” (Here and elsewhere, Derrick Cohan’s ace cinematography is an invaluable asset.)
But the very best thing in the entire movie is Rourke’s surprisingly affecting and consistently riveting portrayal of Kaden as a melancholy monster who is at once painfully self-aware and unapologetically amoral. It’s a performance fraught with flamboyant gestures; Rourke’s Kaden hobbles unsteadily on a cane throughout many scenes, and often interrupts his conversations (and threats) by coughing explosively into a handkerchief. But Rourke remains so utterly invested in his character that even when he teeters on the edge of shameless excess — like in the scene where Kaden recalls his short-lived career as a baseball player — there is a sadness to his demeanor that is both disarming and disquieting.
Phillips, Astin (as Ethan’s overbearing rideshare company boss) and Miller acquit themselves respectably in thinly written roles, as does Kate Katzman as Ethan’s attractive next-door neighbor. But the real attention-grabber among the supporting players is Luke Edwards as Kyle, a murderous stuttering simpleton who realizes much too late that, no, Ethan really isn’t his new best friend.
“Adverse” opens Friday in limited theatrical release, and will debut on digital platforms and home video March 9.