In the strange chambers of my heart, there is a special place for action movies and my beloved sub-genre, the schlocky action movie. (It's next to the spot for teen Shakespeare adaptations and only God will judge me.) In the days of rewinding rented video tapes, one mostly had to choose between a good script and good stunts, good acting or good fight choreography. That's right, kids, we didn't always have Charlize Theron in prestige actioners like Atomic Blonde (2017) or The Old Guard (2020) or Fury Road (2015), alternately delving into her character and Krav Maga. Instead, we had the star vehicles from Arnold Schwarzenegger, flexing through Commando (1985), Raw Deal (1986) and Predator (1987), alternately chomping scenery and cigars. (No complaints about his perfect casting as the mostly silent Terminator robot, of course.)
That's not to say I didn't love and rewatch all those mid-1980s to 1990s movies with their mostly low stakes and cocktail napkin scripts. The explosions, the monsters and the gleeful, cartoon violence were opportunities to laugh and gasp as my brother and I passed the microwaved popcorn. Ah, to be young again and see Arnold toss a circular saw blade through a bad guy's head for the first time.
Schlocky action movies are also windows to America's soul. Often hastily assembled with lesser-known actors and budgets favoring explosions rather than script revisions, they are the unedited, ham-fisted answers to questions about what we fear and respect, what we paste over our doubts, and what nuances we'd rather flatten than wrestle. Looking back on the thrills of those cheap productions my brother and I loved, they also served as counterintuitive balms against the Cold War/War on Drugs anxieties of the day, turning Time Magazine stories into allegories that restored the status quo and upheld beliefs about war, masculinity, America and its social order.
I've read John Bennett's briefly hopeful observations in this column about scrappy, lesser-known filmmakers popping up on lower-stakes streaming platforms like Netflix and bringing back smaller, weirder horror with interesting social commentary woven in. And while he's mostly recovered from that bout of optimism, I was crossing my fingers for a crop of smarter, smaller-scale action movies — simple plots, sharp fight choreography (the novelty of machine gun shootouts dissolved with the realization that everyone on the block actually owned something as devastating), central female characters and riskier points of view than a big studio might gamble on. And so, when Bennett took the weekend off, I got a little excited for Netflix's Interceptor, co-written and directed by first-timer Matthew Reilly, which ticked a few boxes but doesn't live up to its B-action promise.
Elsa Pataky (Snakes on a Plane, 2005; Fast Five, 2011) plays Capt. J.J. Collins, whose U.S. Army career has been upended by sexual harassment and the backlash she suffered for reporting it. Collins is suddenly reassigned to the post where it all went down — a nuclear missile defense base in the middle of the ocean off Alaska. She's barely dropped her bags in her quarters when there's a report of stolen Russian nuclear missiles and a breach on base. And we're off. American terrorists have killed everyone outside the fortified control room where she and the panicky Cpl. Shah, who seems only now to have become aware of the gravity of their post's mission to shoot down incoming nukes, must hold their ground alone for 90 minutes, when the Navy SEALS will arrive. It's unsettling that there are no other protocols in place for what seems like a high-value target but never you mind.
As the standoff wears on, Collins and Shah must also endure the monologuing of the villain, an angry Kohl's model named Kessel (Luke Bracey), whose disgruntled billionaire scion/former psy ops torturer issues are exhausting — "Do you know anything about the fall of Rome?" he asks. Collins is never more compelling than when she responds, "If you're going to kill me, just kill me. No mansplaining." Kessel's politics are muddled, too, as he rails at the unchecked power of the rich (OK), hypocritical boasts of equality (I'm with you, bro) and the failure of institutions to protect women and minorities (let's do this!), which he wants to fix by blowing up urban centers all over the country and starting over. (Yeah, that makes zero sense.) Nor does he align with his aggrieved right-wing henchman, who wants to make America great again, presumably by ... leveling it? There's also some mess about a Russian submarine but the main thing is that it's a race against the clock and crazy is all she's got.
Unsurprisingly, the fights are where Interceptor is strongest, with tight sets and exciting hand-to-hand choreography. There is an engaging fight with the sole female terrorist that turns the control room into an octagon, a few countdown races to push a button and one goofily outlandish death. Points for all those. Still, Pataky has the moves but outside the action, she struggles to be casual or natural, and one wonders if she might have done better only delivering vital information and shit talk. Secondary characters are wooden, the Zoom call with the president's war room is embarrassing, even for a schlocky movie, and the dialogue, cowritten with Stuart Beattie, is awkward, which is a shame because writers truly are the cheapest resource. (Trust me on that.) The only humor to be enjoyed anywhere is the occasional cameo by Pataky's husband Chris Hemsworth as a dorky electronics store salesman reacting to the story unfolding on national TV.
The boogeymen have shifted to treason and misogyny, but Collins and everyone else cling tight to the status quo and the fairytale that institutions will have our backs if we are good enough and strong enough. For all the wild choices in this one, it could have taken a leap that was worth the risk. TVMA. 99M. NETFLIX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.