Morgan Freeman’s Disabled Villain Isn’t the Biggest Problem With ‘Vanquish,’ His Cheesy New Thriller
It’s been ages since Morgan Freeman gave a performance that wasn’t more appealing than his own persona. His new thriller, “Vanquish,” gets at the essence of the challenge: Left to his own devices in a cheesy, half-baked thriller that finds him playing a disabled cop with a criminal past, he surrenders the knowing grin and cocked eyebrow routine that has solidified into a punchline, and this pulpy B-movie could use exactly that.
“Vanquish” stands in striking contrast to other recent Freeman credits where he plays himself just right. Released in the aftermath of his hilarious celebrity narration to the funeral sequence of “Coming 2 America” and his request that Americans get vaccinated in a widely circulated PSA (“For some reason, people trust me”), director George Gallo’s ill-conceived movie sticks Freeman in a wheelchair and tries to rewire his sagacious persona with shades of gray.
It’s always intriguing to watch perennial good guys try to go bad, but “Vanquish” doesn’t give the man nearly enough substance to make that gamble worthwhile. As Damon, a retired and seemingly corrupt police commissioner who lost the use of his legs in a retaliatory shooting years earlier, Freeman is enmeshed in the kind of guilt-ridden scenario that wouldn’t look out of place in an Abel Ferrara crime saga 30 years ago. Blackmailing reluctant assassin and drug runner Victoria (Ruby Rose) to nab some cash for him over the course of a single violent night, Damon’s entire moral standing isn’t revealed until the movie’s final scenes, but that payoff hardly justifies the slog of getting there.
There’s no practical reason to cast an able-bodied actor in this role beyond the (questionable) financial boost from Freeman’s name, and “Vanquish” never makes a case for the actor beyond that. Damon’s circumstances are surrounded by a wannabe “John Wick” action-thriller routine that finds Victoria shooting her way through one baddie after another, with the central gimmick asking her to wear a camera on her chest so Damon can watch the mayhem unfold from his palatial Los Angeles lair. While that setup hints at yet another modern-day “Rear Window” riff, it struggles to mine anything engaging beyond the initial setup: Damon drops the nice guy routine and kidnaps Victoria’s young daughter, promising to return the girl as soon as the woman picks up money from a series of shady characters in the hours ahead.
So she does, speeding around town on her motorcycle as a thundering score guides her along, and usually turning to her gun when the goons try to stop her. Damon watches the circumstances unfold and offers guidance in Victoria’s ear through a remote mic, though she doesn’t really need it: Fast on the draw and capable of outthinking even the most devious trap (the sudden use of cocaine as a remedy to bad drugs is the movie’s sole clever moment), Victoria’s kind of fun to watch in fits and starts. But the cheap, clunky staging of the action — from seedy nightclub shootouts to highway chase scenes — play like rough ideas for showdowns that never take shape.
Rose was a snarky treat as Stella Carlin on “Orange Is the New Black” and kicked some ass as the silent killer Ares in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” but she’s all over the place here with a performance that calls for a blend of attitude and deep-seated grief that manifest in blunt chunks of exposition. Her performance is a symptom of the larger issues at play: As a director, Gallo (whose best-known writing credit is “Midnight Run,” though he’s credited with the story for “Bad Boys”) struggles to merge the self-serious nature of the overall scenario with a corny playfulness that’s more superficial than self-aware. As it happens, one of the movie’s best lines gets to the essence of its sloppy, imitative core: “I heard you killed more people than Quentin Tarantino!” When you’re calling out the reigning king of hyper-stylized violence in a much lesser product, nobody wins.
Of course, she hasn’t killed more people than Quentin Tarantino, because this COVID-era project is barely even populated by extras. “Vanquish” almost makes the mess worthwhile when it finally gives Freeman’s character an empowering moment, but it comes and goes with such bland indifference that it actually argues against the appeal of an actor whose screen presence has been one of American cinema’s most celebrated fixtures for upwards of 30 years. Whether or not you adore “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Million Dollar Baby” — or even the “Almighty” franchise, for crying out loud — the Freeman spark that elevated those movies is nowhere to be found, and Freeman minus the Freeman factor is just a lost cause.
Lionsgate releases “Vanquish” in select theaters on April 6, 2021 and on digital and on demand on April 20.
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