Early on in “Vanquish,” Ruby Rose as Morgan Freeman’s improbable housekeeper is very awkwardly chopping some vegetable — the awkwardness providing a rare plausible moment, as Rose seems an even less likely maker-of-dinner than she does slayer-of-many-criminal-goons. If she’d kept slicing that carrot or whatever for the remaining 90 minutes here, the results would have been approximately as exciting as the high-body-count action occupying most of veteran writer-director George Gallo’s feature.
“Vanquish” isn’t bad so much as inert — nothing here is convincing, tense, kinetic, outrageous, or silly enough to give the movie even fleeting life. The script is so by-the-numbers, the performers can hardly hide their disinterest, a feeling soon to be shared by viewers lured by the promise of these stars in a violent revenge tale. Lionsgate opens it in select theaters April 16, followed by on demand and digital release four days later.
Newspaper headlines under the opening credits inform that “hero cop” Damon (Freeman) had a long career until wounds in the course of duty reduced him to wheelchair-bound retirement. That he was also a crooked cop is evidenced by the absurdly expansive, all-white manse he lives in, apparently tended solely by Victoria (Rose), whose wee daughter Lily (Juju Journey Brener) he dotes on. Their presence is evidence of Damon’s better side, as he rescued Vicky from a life of crime and certain prison sentence to keep her with her child.
But that’s all the backstory we get, apart from learning Vicky’s brother was killed by crooks they were once entangled with. Now, just as she’s discovered Lily requires expensive medical treatments, her employer announces he’ll pay for them — if she uses “some of your old skills” to collect and/or steal money back from various local ne’er-do-wells tonight. Should she refuse, he says she’ll never see her daughter again. This immediately sets “Vanquish” on a psychologically fraudulent base, since we know Damon would never hurt Lily — yet Vicky is now motivated by the far-fetched fear her longtime benefactor would do just that.
In any case, after getting armed to the teeth, Victoria speeds off on her Harley to the first of five “stops” in which she’ll walk into some den of iniquity, then walk out with a sackful of extracted moolah. Almost invariably, myriad goons are left dead in her wake, often for little discernible reason. Though a white leather jacket makes her a great nocturnal target, umpteen shots fired miraculously miss Vicky, while she takes out every hardened tough. Much of this is absurd in a particularly oblivious, lazy way, as when several such thugs holding her at gunpoint nonetheless let her grope around inside her jacket … where she happens to have a handy grenade.
A movie with this slim a pretext for near-incessant action can work if it provides sufficient humor, style, a unique atmosphere, memorable action and/or the kind of star charisma that somehow punches it all across. But “Vanquish” is lacking on nearly every front, to an almost bewildering degree. Gallo evinces no flair for bullet ballets, so Vicky simply blams people in the forehead again and again. Stunts like a sideways motorcycle pass beneath a semi feel too familiar to thrill. There’s no depth to characters we’re still expected to take seriously. One exception is Joel Michaely as a flaming Southern queen, whose “I hear you killed more people than Quentin Tarantino. Fancy a mint julep?” reps the height of quips here, and he’s too offensive to be funny.
There are attempts at lending the proceedings vigor via handheld shots and frenetic editing, yet the film just lays there. Even a somewhat stimulating visual palette is miscalculated: Why are the bad guys’ scenes drenched in a sort of Day-Glo sea-green hue, while the all-white surfaces of Damon’s domain are lit aquamarine-to-purple? These are the colors of lollipops, not neo-noir. Aldo Shllaku’s synthy score affords a thumping propulsion the movie stubbornly refuses to be enlivened by.
Perhaps ex-model Rose (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Batwoman,” “The Meg”) could have pulled off this “La Femme Nikita”-esque part under different circumstances. But the script gives her nothing to work with, and she is not yet a commanding enough screen presence to make the flimsy enterprise either credible or an enjoyable fantasy all by herself. The androgynous features (abetted by wardrobe and buzzcut here) that make her an interesting camera subject aren’t at all integrated into the character conception — Victoria is a supposedly-badass blank slate. Scenes with her daughter are so forced we don’t believe in that aspect of the heroine, either; she seems nervous and arm’s-length, as if stuck babysitting a stranger’s child.
Freeman’s entire role appears designed for him to exert as little effort as possible, staying on one location in his chair, barely reacting long-distance to the paces he puts Vicky through. (He can see and talk to her via remote-control devices.) He’s an actor seldom prone toward overstatement, but here reserve verges on somnambulism.
Shot in Mississippi (though the story’s setting is left unspecified), “Vanquish” is one of those films whose very professional polish in all departments further drains the whole of any fun — far worse, cheaper joints in the same general wheelhouse often have a crass energy or some unintentional laughs to generate guilty pleasure. A movie with this little nutritional value ought to provide at least a little bang for your buck. But “Vanquish” feels like a firecracker submerged in water before it’s even lit.