Jodie Foster runs a top secret hospital for criminals in an interestingly conceived, entertaining, but superficial action-thriller.
The concept of “world-building” is a relatively new way to describe a time-honored idea of creating a brand new reality, rich with detail and character, that can be explored from any angle. It’s a style of writing which gives the world itself as much character as the characters who inhabit that world, and when it works, it’s a truly glorious thing.
Hotel Artemis doesn’t not work, but it also doesn’t quite get the formula right. The film takes place in the near future, at a secret hospital for supercriminals, where they can clean their wounds in privacy, without fear of getting assassinated by the other patients. It’s basically the Continental Hotel from John Wick, but without a full-service bar, and run by Jodie Foster.
Jodie Foster, in her first feature film role in half a decade, plays “The Nurse,” an agoraphobic health care provider who lives in the past, constantly reliving the tragic death of her son. Her only associate is Everest, a towering orderly played by Dave Bautista, who wants to heal the sick but will also break you in half if you don’t follow the Artemis’s rules.
In the midst of a Los Angeles riot, a bank heist goes bad, and the thieves take shelter at the Artemis in order to clean their wounds. Every patient at the Artemis is referred to by their suite name, so the robbers end up going by Waikiki (Sterling Hayden), a consummate professional held back by his drug-addicted brother, Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry). Their fellow patients are the mysterious assassin Nice (Sofia Boutella), named after the French city, and the jerky arms dealer Acapulco (Charlie Day).
The chaos outside the Hotel Artemis, the mysterious patients within, the shifting allegiances and the promise of a V.I.P. patient en route all create some sort of perfect storm, where every single thing that happens is a catastrophic inconvenience. Murder is inevitable, kick butt fights are inevitable, and quirkiness is everywhere, for better or worse.
Drew Pearce wrote and directed Hotel Artemis, and he seems to take particular pleasure in showing his work. Every facet of the establishment and the world in which it resides is presented in microscopic detail, so the audience learns the origin of the hotel, its geography, its unique technology, its power generator, its secret keys, and the clandestine society which uses its services. Make no mistake, it’s a fun world to visit.
The problem is, the people who live there are mostly one-note figures, who look cool but make this painstakingly created environment seem fake. John Wick made the Continental seem real because Wick, at least, is a fully realized character with a complicated inner life and genuine tragedy in his heart. And you get the distinct impression that, although we don’t get to know the other characters terribly well, they co-exist alongside Wick as real(istic) characters. Even the characters who posture in the original John Wick are, at least, revealed to be shallow to a fault, because that’s how that behavior usually works.
The cast of characters in Hotel Artemis are exceptionally arch, but that’s because the plot doesn’t give them any room to be human. They have to serve their function in this tightly wound timepiece of a movie, where all the moving parts have to move “just so,” and there’s no room to reveal what they think about anything that doesn’t have to do with the plot. And since the plot is big and brassy and implausible, they seem big and brassy and implausible too.
That being said, it’s a great group of actors that Pearce has assembled, and they all do an admirable job of elevating the material and injecting humanity wherever they can. Sterling K. Brown is an intensely sympathetic presence, even when he’s playing a slick heist leader, and Dave Bautista is intensely empathetic, as a character who genuinely cares about his job, his co-worker, and the hotel itself. Charlie Day and Sofia Boutella have less to work with, but they’re always entertaining on-screen presences, and their contributions are welcome.
Anchoring it all is Jodie Foster, who gets more back story than any other character, and who adds a mesmerizing physicality to what could have been an entirely superficial role. Her short steps and quick pace tell you a lot about her : she’s motivated but highly controlled, and her motivations and discipline are effectively challenged over the course of the film. It’s Jodie Foster’s movie, and everyone else is just visiting.
But make no mistake: Hotel Artemis is a very fun movie. The world Drew Pearce builds is amusing and filled with comedy and action and pathos. But it exerts much more energy making us believe in the environment than it does on making us believe in the characters. It’s a good foundation beneath a flimsy building, one that blows over all too easily.