Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In Theaters: THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Greg McLean. Written by James Gunn. Cast: John Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, Owain Yeoman, Josh Brener, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, James Earl, David Dastmalchian, Rusty Schwimmer, Abraham Benrubi, Stephen Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, David Del Rio. (R, 89 mins)

Years before hitting the big time with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, James Gunn wrote THE BELKO EXPERIMENT but stashed it away and made 2011's SUPER instead. He dusted the script off in 2015, gave it a polish, and handed it to WOLF CREEK director Greg McLean (THE DARKNESS) while he got to work prepping the upcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2. Though it's the first good movie McLean has directed in the decade since the killer croc gem ROGUE, BELKO still feels more like a Gunn joint, with its dark sense of misanthropic humor and shock bits that recall his early days at Troma (he wrote 1996's TROMEO AND JULIET), plus supporting roles for Gunn fixtures like his younger brother Sean and Character Actor Hall of Famers Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry. Opening with a Spanish-language flamenco version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," THE BELKO EXPERIMENT depicts one really bad day at the office for 80 employees at the Bogota, Colombia branch of the US-based Belko Industries. A government-run nonprofit that specializes in "facilitating services for American companies in South America," Belko's real purpose seems vague even to its staff, and this day starts off in an odd way when the local Bogota employees are turned away at the gate and told to go home by a new team of armed security personnel, leaving only the 80 American transfers in the high-rise located in the remote outskirts of the city. Things proceed in a relatively normal fashion until late morning, when office drone Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr) notices the new guards going into a never-used storage building on the property. Soon after, impenetrable steel shutters are activated to cover the windows and doors, the phones and internet stop working, and a voice over the intercom informs them that they have to begin killing their co-workers in the next 30 minutes or else other measures will be taken. No one seems to take it seriously until the time expires and several random people have the back of their heads blown off--not by bullets as initially thought, but by activated tracking chips planted at the base of their skulls when they were hired, in the event any of them were kidnapped by local insurgents.

Mike is the moral center of the story, a nice, conscientious guy who refuses to kill his co-workers (he also tries and fails to slice out his tracking chip with a box cutter) but he finds some resistance, even from his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) tries to keep everyone cool but soon finds his own grip on sanity loosening, especially when the voice ups the stakes by giving them two hours to kill 30 people or else 60 of them will be executed by chip detonation. Sides soon form, with Milch, security chief Evan (James Earl), HR head Vince (Brent Sexton), and a conflicted Leandra leading a group that's pursued throughout the building by Barry, an ex-Special Forces soldier who assumes control of the crazed "kill or be killed" faction, a group that includes Mike's best friend Terry (Owain Yeoman) and sleazy Wendell (John C. McGinley), who sees this an an opportunity to get even with Leandra, who's repeatedly rebuffed his aggressive advances. The clock keeps ticking and no one is safe, including strays left on their own throughout the building, like maintenance head Bud (Rooker), stoner cafeteria cook and conspiracy theorist Marty (Sean Gunn), and new hire Dany (Melonie Diaz), who picked the worst possible day to begin her career at Belko Industries.

The title of the film is pretty much a giveaway that unseen figures are at work, and it's hard not to be reminded of Stanley Milgram or the Stanford Prison Experiment as THE BELKO EXPERIMENT plays out. Essentially a lurid, splatter-filled fusion of OFFICE SPACE and BATTLE ROYALE with a record number of exploding heads, BELKO works on a visceral level as a suspense thriller but Gunn's script never really explores its satirical potential. There's little exploration of the experiment as an analogy for the cutthroat world of corporate America beyond the obvious, with the alpha male sociopaths in charge (Barry, Wendell) thinking nothing of killing everyone underneath them and the mid-level pencil-pushers (Mike, Leandra) and outsiders (Evan, Bud, Marty) looking out for each other. There's also an entire level of commentary about Belko being a US government project that goes completely unaddressed, even after the big reveal about who's actually running the experiment. Anyone is fair game and can be killed at any moment, regardless of their billing in the credits. The message, as explained by Leandra: "At the end of the day, people are out for themselves." Well, no shit. Gunn's films have never really been about the subtext, so on a strictly B-movie, genre fare level, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: put a bunch of people in an environment of High Rise Mayhem and have them kill each other in the goriest ways possible--not just exploding heads or with guns, axes, knives, and meatcleavers, but also with creative weapons like a makeshift sword fashioned from a dismantled paper cutter, plus the world's most lethal Scotch-Tape dispenser. THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is flopping pretty hard in theaters but it's a low-budget offering from Blumhouse that doesn't have to make much to turn a profit, plus it's the kind of movie that will find a cult once it hits streaming services. It's also the first wide release from the relaunched Orion Pictures, the long-defunct '80s mainstay that was resurrected as a little-used MGM subsidiary in 2013. How nice is it to see that familiar logo on a big screen again?

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