Monday, April 10, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: AFTERMATH (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Elliott Lester. Written by Javier Gullon. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace, Martin Donovan, Judah Nelson, Kevin Zegers, Larry Sullivan, Glenn Morshower, Hannah Ware, Jason McCune, Mo McRae, Mariana Klaveno, Christopher Darga, Lewis James Pullman. (R, 93 mins)

Though he's now in the William Shatner self-deprecation phase of his career, Jean-Claude Van Damme very quietly established himself as a capable actor in a series of above-average and under-the-radar straight-to-DVD action movies throughout the '00s. In a similarly stealth fashion, in addition to action fare like the EXPENDABLES movies, THE LAST STAND, and ESCAPE PLAN, a post-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger has made attempts to turn into a serious dramatic actor in a pair of low-profile departures when no one was looking. First was 2015's MAGGIE, a straight-faced zombie apocalypse saga where Arnold played a loving father determined to hold on to the shred of humanity in his teenage daughter after she's turned into one of the walking dead. And now, the grim drama AFTERMATH gives the nearly-70-year-old former action hero a chance to further stretch outside his comfort zone. Written by Javier Gullon (ENEMY) and counting Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN) among its 27 credited producers, AFTERMATH is inspired by the story of Vitaly Kaloyev, a Russian man whose wife and two children were killed when two planes collided over Germany in the summer of 2002. He blamed supervising air traffic controller Peter Nielsen, who retired from his job and moved away but two years later, Kaloyev, still consumed by grief and rage, tracked him down to a small town in Switzerland, showed up at his front door, and stabbed him to death in front of his family.

AFTERMATH relocates the story to Cincinnati, OH (after all, this is also a Grindstone Entertainment and Emmett/Furla production), where Russian-born Roman Melnyk (Schwarzenegger) is a naturalized American citizen who has settled into a honest, hard-working, blue collar life as a construction site manager. Upon arriving at the airport to pick up his wife and pregnant adult daughter, who are returning home from an extended visit to see family in their native Kiev, Roman is ushered into an office where an airport staffer informs him that the plane carrying his wife and daughter crashed. Director Elliott Lester (the Jason Statham actioner BLITZ) cuts from Roman to Jacob Bonanos (Scoot McNairy), the air traffic controller on the graveyard shift who's left alone in the control tower when the required second controller decides to take a break, leaving Jacob to deal with a malfunctioning phone that requires him to remove his headset, causing him to notice too late that two passenger jets are headed toward one another (Lester very effectively depicts the crash not with special effects and destruction, but by both planes simply vanishing from Jacob's screen). Jacob is ushered into a conference room where he explains what happened and is assured that no one is blaming him, but he's so overcome by guilt in the days and weeks after that his wife Christina (Maggie Grace) decides it's best for her and their young son Samuel (Judah Nelson) to be away from him for a while, especially when vandals spray-paint "Killer" and "Murderer" over the front of their house. Meanwhile, Roman is finding it difficult to accept what's happened, especially when no one offers an apology and he's only met with smirking derision by the airline's slick, arrogant lawyer (Kevin Zegers), who repeatedly talks over him and tosses a $160,000 settlement contract across a table to him, refusing to even look at a photo of Roman's wife and daughter. Put on administrative leave and with his personal life falling to pieces, Jacob loses the support of his company-man boss (a perfectly-cast Martin Donovan), who encourages him to take a severance package, change his name, relocate to another city and start his life over. A year goes by, during which time Jacob has moved away and changed his name, while Roman is contacted by an ethically-challenged reporter (Hannah Ware) who's written a book about the fatal mid-air collision and alerts him to Jacob's whereabouts.

AFTERMATH sometimes feels like it's stacking the deck, with Zegers' attorney being such an unconscionable prick that you'll wish old-school Schwarzenegger would pummel the shit out of him. And it puts both Roman and Jacob through the usual tropes of grief, with Roman getting drunk and standing atop an under-construction building and contemplating jumping, while Jacob downs some pills before gathering his senses, purging them about 30 seconds later. One scene that seems almost too ludicrous and thoroughly unbelievable actually happened: when Roman manages to sneak into the crash site as a volunteer, he happens to see his daughter's pearl necklace on a branch and nearby, finds her body dangling high up in a tree that broke her fall from the sky. That actually happened when Kaloyev infiltrated a team of volunteers at the German crash site. Lionsgate isn't doing much with AFTERMATH, banishing it to VOD and a small handful of theaters. The trailer sells it as a sort-of formulaic Schwarzenegger revenge thriller, but it's a somber and low-key meditation on grief felt by two men who have lost everything in an incredible tragedy. It's inevitable that the focus will be on Schwarzenegger doing straight drama in what could be called his COP LAND, but doing so would detract from the outstanding performance by McNairy, who's become one of the most reliable character actors in movies today (KILLING THEM SOFTLY, ARGO, 12 YEARS A SLAVE). Jacob's negligence on duty was a legitimate mistake (though the trailer is edited as such that it looks like he's thoughtlessly getting coffee instead of doing his job), and you feel his anguish, especially in a difficult scene where he breaks down after being told 271 people are dead. Gullon's script puts Roman and Jacob through too a few too many cliched plot turns (their drinking, Jacob's fights with his wife, a paranoid Jacob stocking up on guns, Roman getting kicked out of the cemetery, where he spends his nights sleeping by his wife and daughter's graves), but by sticking to the events of its inspiration, it doesn't absolve anyone. This is especially true of Roman, who's slow-boiling anger goes way beyond wanting a sincere apology when he decides to take a concealed knife with him when he knocks on Jacob's door, proof positive he's gone from grief to madness and not in a cathartic, crowd-pleasing way. As good as Schwarzenegger was in MAGGIE, he didn't sound much like a midwestern farmer, and it helps that his performance here marks one of the few times in his career that his character has an excuse for that distinctive accent. That said, I'm not sure if there's an excuse for why, in 2017, we're still seeing Arnold's ass in a scene where Roman showers after work.

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