On paper, Hotel Artemis reads like a surefire set up for one hell of a Wickensian siege picture. A nameless, haggard alcoholic Nurse (Jodie Foster) runs the titular underground hospital for bad guys, which requires a membership – much like Baba Yaga's beloved Continental – and owns a strict set of rules. No guns. No killing the other patients. No raising your voice to the staff. If you violate any of these regulations, the Nurse's lone burly orderly Everest (Dave Bautista) hauls your ass right out into the streets of near future Los Angeles, where full-scale riots are tearing the metropolis to the ground, and leaves you there to fend for yourself. Though it may look like Chateau Marmont, this is a sort of high tech (at least, when they can keep the power going) healing zone for the deadliest of the deadly, provided they've got the green to pay for patching themselves up.
Enter Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown), a professional bank robber whose brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) is shot during their last mostly unsuccessful heist. Those aren't their real names, mind you, but rather the rooms they're staying in (each somewhat antiseptic abode christened by an idyllic getaway). While the Nurse knows these men by face – as she's been running this goddamn place for twenty-two years – she still wants to keep everything strictly professional. The guilty – such as these heist men, or smarmy arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day), who’s also currently taking up a bed in Hotel Artemis – can tend to their individual wounds under the cover of anonymity, that way there are never any witnesses, should the cops ever come calling. It's a system that works, and will continue to work so as long as everybody plays their part and sticks to the code of conduct that's clearly printed on the hallways of this clandestine ward.
Problem is: Honolulu's got something that the city’s head honcho – a particularly feared predator known as The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) – will kill him for taking should he ever find out. Right now, that kingpin is being carted over to Hotel Artemis by his hothead son (Zachary Quinto), who's rudely demanding the Nurse keep a spare spot open for his powerful papa. This is against the rules, but even this dutiful healer of bad dudes knows that there's no saying "no" to the guy who bankrolls this and every other operation in town. But now Waikiki's got a choice to make: give up the goods and let his fuck-up sibling face the music, or die trying to defend him once the Wolf King's goons track the pricey item to the room right down the hall from their boss’.
All the pieces are in place for an all-timer shoot ‘em up, right? Well, writer/director Drew Pearce – who helped pen Iron Man 3 with Shane Black, and helmed the Marvel One Shot All Hail The King – turns his feature debut into a somewhat tedious, talky anti-action movie, building to a single climactic set piece that is, more or less, just kind of competently okay. Thankfully, his cast is totally game for trying to flesh out this bizarre tough guy fantasyland, peppered with small supporting roles from Kenneth Choi (as one of Honolulu and Waikiki's accomplices), and Jenny Slate (putting in decent work as a wounded police officer tied to the Nurse's melancholy past). Sofia Boutella's ultra-lethal assassin Nice is probably most underserved by this stagey structure, as we keep waiting for her to rain down destruction on whoever the current target is, yet she keeps getting distracted by chatter about talking coffee pots.
Thankfully, Pearce's script is filled with enough fluid, noirish dialogue to keep the barely 90-minute affair moving along at a clip, and a few of the relationships generate a decent amount of chemistry to keep us engaged the whole way through (especially Foster and Bautista, who share a genuine surrogate mother/son affection for one another). Still, it’s difficult not to feel somewhat let down by the whole affair, as we keep waiting for Hotel Artemis to kick into another gear it doesn’t seem equipped with, the vehicle instead opting to hum along and act as a showcase for a writer clearly in love with his own sense of cleverness. From a technical standpoint, it’s a marvel. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (The Handmaiden) bathes Ramsey Avery's lavish production design in foreboding shadow, bringing this vision of a near dystopian future to life, while Cliff Martinez (Only God Forgives) delivers more of his trademark tracks, which alternate between ambient sparkles and thumping bass.
Do these rather impressive components of Hotel Artemis add up to a satisfying whole? Not really. Sure, Pearce's movie is watchable, and it's never fair to judge a picture for what it isn't, as opposed to what’s placed on the screen in front of you. Yet there's still something lacking at the movie's core – an elevating element that takes Pearce's big screen bow to another level of entertainment. Though it may be an unfair (but still somewhat justified) comparison, John Wick at least had the foresight to get out of its colorful characters' way and just let them start shooting at one another. Here, it seems like every obstacle is placed in this horde of bad guys' path, just so they can't take action. That's a rather inert, counterproductive way to tell a story, and results in a decidedly middling slice of genre cinema.