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‘Force of Nature’: Film Review

Variety — Dennis Harvey

A category five hurricane is the least of the perils confronting characters in “Force of Nature.” Set in Puerto Rico during such a tempest, this diverting thriller from director Michael Polish has Emile Hirsch as a cop protecting various apartment building residents (including Kate Bosworth and Mel Gibson) from a murderous gang of thieves. Yet more complicating factors, from wild animals to Nazi war booty, get thrown into the hectic hopper of Cory Miller’s first produced feature screenplay. Lionsgate is releasing to U.S. home formats on July 30.

After a short prelude showing Gibson’s ex-cop character taking a tricky shot during a torrential downpour (a point the film catches up to again midway), we rewind eight hours to clear blue skies, as reports warn of an imminent conflagration in which flash floods, mudslides and winds up to 140 are anticipated.

San Juan police have orders to forcibly evacuate any holdouts in vulnerable areas, for which purpose suicidal ex-NYPD veteran Cardillo (Hirsch) and eager-for-action rookie Pena (Peruvian actress/pop star Stephanie Cayo, in her first English-language role) get paired. They wind up taking custody of a Black man (Will Catlett’s Griffin) caught in an altercation trying to buy 100 lbs. of meat amidst panicked buying at a supermarket. When he tells them he needs to feed his “pet,” and that there are also a couple old men who refuse to leave their flats, the officers agree to stop at his apartment complex.

There, they find just what Griffin had promised, more or less: A not-remotely-domesticated carnivore kept behind a heavily barred door; an elderly gent (Jorge Luis Ramos’ Bergkamp) behind his own suspiciously high-security barriers; and Ray (Gibson), a retired mainland cop in ornery good spirits but poor health. He declines to be evacuated, knowing he’ll end up in a hospital as doctor daughter Troy (Bosworth) insists he should.

Getting all these resistant folk out to safety, as the storm is now fully lashing out, would be difficult enough. But it gets a lot trickier once John (David Zayas) and his henchmen show up, fresh from having killed two people during a bank job. They’re a brutish lot who’ve pulled off several high-end heists in recent weeks. Their current shopping list won’t be complete without acquiring valuable items they’re convinced one of the local residents has squirreled away.

When Cardillo witnesses them blasting away the building’s unlucky super, he quickly susses what the good guys are up against: a half-dozen well-armed killers. Evening out the odds somewhat are the presence of two active police; secretive survivalist type Bergkamp’s private arsenal of weapons; Troy’s medical skills, which come in handy once nearly everyone starts getting wounded; and Ray, who may be on dialysis but doesn’t intend to let a few thugs shorten his lifespan, or deny himself the pleasure of wasting ’em.

Though various offscreen antics might have permanently removed him from the industry A-list (as an actor if not director), Gibson still gives good value in the crankypants roles that have long been a personal specialty, most famously in the “Lethal Weapon” series. It’s a tad disappointing his material isn’t more inspired (or his role larger) here, but he helps make “Force” fun by taking it none too seriously. Ditto Hirsch, whose hero is a virtual Ray-in-training junior misanthrope made bitter rather than sorrowful by the inevitable tragic on-duty backstory. Cardillo is softened, however, by romantic sparking under duress with Bosworth’s Troy, and the movie wisely decides to let their bantering courtship — advancing during moments such as her stitching up his bullet wound — play as comedy.

The David Lynchian affectations of his early features now well behind him, Polish doesn’t demonstrate any great flair for suspense or violent action. But he keeps this potboiler moving briskly enough to prevent its overloaded plot from tumbling into silliness, and the cast is solid enough to skate over occasional duff dialogue.

Shot on location in Puerto Rico, albeit primarily limited to one six-story setting, the film lets its director maintain some of his erstwhile art-house style solely in the realm of visuals. Which is all to the good — this action B picture benefits from inviting splashes of idiosyncratic color in both production designer Mailara Santana Pomales’ apartment interiors and the lighting of DP Jayson Crothers’ widescreen compositions.

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