Big Pharma are killers, and they take a resounding beating, in “Sweet Girl” — literally. An actioner about a father who responds to personal tragedy by going on a bloodthirsty rampage with his teen daughter in tow, Brian Andrew Mendoza’s feature debut is a giddily outlandish exploitation throwback, featuring Jason Momoa as a grieving bruiser whose answer for everything is violence, violence and more violence. Delivering the sort of R-rated macho carnage that was all the rage in the ’80s and ’90s, the film benefits from its gung-ho treatment of preposterous material, and should entice genre aficionados when it debuts on Netflix on Aug. 20.
Following some cornball voiceover that accompanies the sight of Ray Cooper (Momoa) leaping off the roof of Pittsburgh’s PNC Park in front of FBI agent Sarah Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), “Sweet Girl” rewinds to detail the misfortune that befalls Ray when his wife Amanda (Adria Arjona) falls ill with cancer. Hope briefly arrives when Ray and his 18-year-old daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced) learn that a cheap generic version of Amanda’s costly medications will soon be available. Yet those prospects are dashed by BioPrime CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha), who squashes the release of this more affordable alternative in order to protect his profits. This naturally infuriates Ray, who upon seeing Keeley on CNN, calls into the TV show and makes a promise to the pharmaceutical titan: “If my wife dies, it’s your death sentence. I will hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands.”
Those are bold words from this ordinary man, whose background and profession are never revealed. The most we learn about Ray is that he likes to train at an MMA gym, thereby confirming his badass bona fides. Nonetheless, Momoa ably conveys Ray’s widower pain during a hospital hallway breakdown, exuding a depth of raw emotion that’s almost startlingly powerful given the absurdity that follows. Six months after Amanda’s untimely demise, Ray is contacted by a Vice reporter (Nelson Franklin) who claims to have inside information about BioPrime’s nefariousness, and Ray agrees to meet him on a subway train, at which point an assassin (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) appears out of nowhere and executes the journalist in broad daylight, thus instigating the first of Ray’s many deadly fights.
From there, “Sweet Girl” heads into ludicrous territory with a grimly straight face, as Ray follows through on his vow to Keeley and winds up on the run (with Rachel by his side) from a variety of lethal professionals who are no match for his strength and ferocity. Ray believes there’s a conspiracy afoot involving BioPrime and other shadowy players, and considering that there are only two characters who could be behind it all — Keeley’s crooked partner Vinod Shah (Raza Jaffrey) and anti-Big Pharma congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) — it’s not difficult to figure out who’s to blame. Still, such predictability is in keeping with the meat-and-potatoes nature of this affair. At most turns, Mendoza and Gregg Hurwitz’s script exhibits little interest in logic, surprise or nuance, since all might interfere with Momoa’s vicious throwdowns.
Even more ridiculous than Ray going full-on homicidal, and a pharmaceutical company sending scores of hitmen after him, is the story’s late twist, which asks viewers to accept that what they’ve just watched was actually less crazy than the truth. Aided by Steven Price’s enthusiastic score, Mendoza’s vigorous direction keeps things speeding along, and Momoa is such a charismatic presence — whether sensitively interacting with Rachel (skillfully embodied by Merced) or inventively snapping an adversary’s neck — that the proceedings’ lack of realism works to its advantage. Casting its brutal action and anguished family drama in amusingly over-the-top terms, the film confirms that, though Hollywood may not make brawny B-movies like they used to, perhaps they should.