Friday, August 4, 2017

On Netflix: MESSAGE FROM THE KING (2017)

(UK/France/Belgium - 2017)

Directed by Fabrice du Welz. Written by Stephen Cornwell and Oliver Butcher. Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Martinez, Tom Felton, Jake Weary, Chris Mulkey, Dale Dickey, Tom Wright, Lucan Melkonian, Arthur Darbinyan, Diego Josef, Sibongile Mlambo. (Unrated, 103 mins)

Belgian filmmaker Fabrice du Welz made his name with 2004's CALVAIRE, his contribution to the then-popular wave of "extreme" horror coming out of France, which included films like Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION, Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S), Julien Maury and Alexander Bustillo's INSIDE, and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS. It was several years before du Welz returned with the mostly English-language "trip upriver as metaphor for journey into madness" horror film VINYAN, which bombed internationally and ended up going straight-to-DVD in the US. Du Welz took another extended break, returning with 2014's ALLELUIA, a grim chronicle of the same spree killers whose story was the basis of both the 1969 cult classic THE HONEYMOON KILLERS as well as the little-seen 2006 noir throwback LONELY HEARTS, and the crime thriller COLT 45, the latter of which is still waiting for a US release. With the Netflix Original film MESSAGE FROM THE KING, du Welz is working in America for the first time. A mainstream revenge thriller with echoes of THE LIMEY and TAKEN, MESSAGE focuses on Jacob King (42 and GET ON UP's Chadwick Boseman, soon to headline Marvel's BLACK PANTHER), who's just arrived in L.A. from Cape Town, South Africa looking for his younger sister Bianca (Sibongile Mlambo) after an urgent, garbled message that she's "in trouble" and has "something they want." Grilled by customs and with only $600 on him ("That's not much for a vacation," he's told. "I'll make it last," he replies), King pounds the pavement, first heading to Bianca's address only to be told by her hard-partying neighbor Trish (Natalie Martinez) that she vanished after her husband split, leaving Bianca to care for his 11-year-old son. Looking through some belongings Bianca left with Trish, King pieces together enough information to send him to Zico (Lucan Melkonian), a flunky for Ducmajian (Arthur Darbinyan), an Eastern European crime boss operating in SoCal. Armed with just a bicycle chain, King beats the shit out of Zico and some other goons, eventually learning that Bianca had a serious drug problem and was likely working as a prostitute. He makes contact with--and bicycle-chains--Bianca's drug dealer Frankie (a nothing bit part for former Draco Malfoy Tom Felton), and, from paging through Bianca's appointment book, gets some info from sleazy Beverly Hills dentist Dr. Paul Wentworth (Luke Evans) before finally checking out the morgue and identifying Bianca's body from an identical tattoo they each have on their right arms. He tells the attendant that the body is not his sister's, so needless to say, King is going full vigilante and making the guilty parties pay on his own.

King's trek through the skeezy underbelly of L.A.--captured very effectively by cinematographer Monika Lenczewska--eventually directs him to blockbuster movie producer Mike Preston (Alfred Molina), a pederast with a never-ending supply of young boys, including Bianca's stepson Armand (Diego Josef), sold by a desperate Bianca, who was forced into prostitution in order to pay off her dead husband's debt to Ducmajian before someone had her killed. Things get even more complicated when King finds a flash drive stashed in pack of Bianca's Marlboros that has some very incriminating evidence tying together Bianca, Ducmajian, Preston, and mob-connected mayoral candidate Frank Leary (Chris Mulkey). Shitbag Wentworth decides to use the situation to bilk some extra money out of both Preston and Ducmajian, but King is constantly a step ahead of all of them, resorting to some vintage YOJIMBO tactics to play all the sides against the other, inevitably leading to a final showdown.

MESSAGE FROM THE KING is fairly formulaic stuff with little in the way of surprises, except for one final reveal that's unnecessary. The script by Stephen Cornwell and Oliver Butcher (they also wrote the Liam Neeson thriller UNKNOWN) relies far too much on contrivance and makes things way too easy for King, a guy who's never been to L.A. before but gets around rather effortlessly and has the good fortune to stumble upon just the info he needs at all times (for instance, visiting Wentworth on a mere hunch, of course he spots Zico walking out after having his jaw reset following his run-in with King's bike chain). A few plot strands are left dangling, and Du Welz has no idea what to do with his female characters, with Trish completely vanishing from the movie as King befriends the only-in-the-movies "hooker with a heart of gold" and single mom Kelly (Teresa Palmer), who emphatically states "I never fuck them," drawing the line at blowjobs, a PRETTY WOMAN-esque bit of sugarcoating that just doesn't seem like a plausible caveat that's available to a battered hooker in an unrelentingly ugly environment as harsh and brutal as the one presented in MESSAGE FROM THE KING. Both Trish and Kelly are underdeveloped characters that would've been better served and made stronger if they were combined into one, especially since Trish just disappears. The villains are stock Eastern European scumbags, Evans is appropriately reptilian and Molina is thoroughly repulsive, whether he's ogling his boy toys or being a racist asshole (with a gun pointed at King, he justifies his reasons for shooting him with "Breaking and entering...self-defense...plus you're black").

MESSAGE FROM THE KING drags in the meandering dialogue scenes with King and Kelly, but ultimately, it's Boseman's intense, ferocious performance that drives it along, carrying this thing on his shoulders with an enraged glare and a very convincing South African accent. Even when the by-the-numbers script is making things entirely too easy for King, Boseman keeps you engaged and rooting for him. Though the pace lags in the middle after a furiously fast-moving opening act, MESSAGE FROM THE KING is purely commercial revenge thriller fare that could've easily been a nationwide theatrical release, but Netflix picked it up at last year's Toronto Film Festival, and relatively speaking, it's one of their better recent "Netflix Original" offerings. Du Welz acquits himself well in this sort of mainstream surrounding, but the purists and CALVAIRE fans can also take heart in knowing that he does indulge in his "extreme horror" past with a few moments of some truly startling violence and splatter, thanks to mostly to the flesh-ripping abilities of King's trusty bicycle chain. Netflix is probably the best fit for this, but even with its many shortcomings, Boseman makes it worth seeing as a decent time-killer.

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