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November 27, 2013

Hey, did you know that Sylvester Stallone was nominated for two Academy Awards? One of them was as best actor in Rocky, but if you haven’t heard it before you might be surprised that the other was for best original screenplay. Seriously, for all his big-dumb-bruiser movie roles that made him famous, Sly has actually written a huge number of scripts, both for his own movies and for other action stars, and some of them are pretty great.

In particular, he wrote the new Jason Statham vehicle, Homefront, and the script is impressive. Statham is in his stoic, badass element. James Franco is playing the kind of sketchy character he’s best at. There are so many things going for this movie that it’s a real shame that director Gary Fleder had to go and ruin it all.

We find Statham in his protector mode here as former undercover agent Phil Broker — I assume we’re meant to translate his Midlands accent to Midland, Louisiana. Broker’s just moved from New Orleans out to Rayville, about two hours east of Shreveport, with his young daughter (Izabela Vidovic) after the recent death of her mother. He has — laudably — taught her to stand up for and defend herself, so when a schoolyard bully (Austin Craig) tries to pick on her she warns him twice and then drops him without breaking a sweat.

The problem is that the bully’s mother is Cassie Bodine (Kate Bosworth), a hotheaded tweaker whose brother, Gator (James Franco) runs all the local meth production while the local sheriff (Clancy Brown) seems more interested in maintaining the peace than enforcing the law. By the time Broker manages to extend an olive branch to Cassie, she’s already asked Gator to take a look around, and Gator has realized that this is the guy who got Louisiana kingpin Danny T (Chuck Zito) arrested and his son killed.

Gator is sort of a mid-level cook and dealer but wants to expand to statewide distribution and get out of the street-level game entirely, and he sees Broker as just the sort of favor to the king that can make this happen. But instead of a lone hitman or something low-key like that, Danny T sends a whole biker gang with submachine guns loaded for bear, and everything gets way out of hand.

There’s a lot of interesting texture here. This is not a classic cat-and-mouse game between two powerful men. Gator is not a leader, but a local thug who plays with forces beyond his control; Broker is not acting as an agent trying to shut down Gator’s business, but just a man trying to live his life in peace. We touch on the frustrating reality that, in a culture run by bullies, attempts to defuse confrontations with compromise or concession will be seen as weakness and invite even more bullying. And even the bullies themselves may be acting out of even worse threats and stresses than those they exert on their victims.

Statham is as solid an action hero as ever, here defending against a home invasion with strong echoes of Straw Dogs. Franco is always at his best when he plays sketchy, sleazy roles, and this is no exception. We even get some deliciously pulpy character performances from the likes of Winona Ryder and Frank Grillo. What’s not to like?

Well, what’s not to like is the action, which is just awful. Every time a fight breaks out, the handheld camera shakes wildly and the editor cuts every quarter-second. It’s impossible to tell where anything is, with the one notable exception being part of a confrontation between Omar Benson Miller and a bad guy. Worse, most of the action happens in really dark night scenes, and often with flashing police lights around to make it even harder to make any sense of what’s going on. It doesn’t even have to be this way; Statham is plenty capable of carrying an action scene under good lighting and a steady camera.

For all the potential in the script and the cast, an action movie lives and dies by its action scenes. In choosing chaos and disorder over more honest ways to excite an audience, Fleder ruins what might otherwise be a perfectly serviceable action drama.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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