(US/UK - 2018)
Last fall, DESTROYER had some awards-season buzz going for Nicole Kidman, but financially-strapped distributor Annapurna decided to focus their attention on the Oscar-baiting VICE instead, leaving DESTROYER to flounder on just 235 screens at its widest release. Looking what can be charitably described as several degrees south of haggard, Kidman did get a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as hard-drinking LAPD detective Erin Bell, a disgraced ex-FBI agent who's pretty much regarded as a total shitshow among her colleagues and always looks like she hasn't slept in days. Though two other cops have already caught the case, she shows up at a homicide where the John Doe murder victim was shot dead and has dye-stained $100 bills scattered around his body. Back at the precinct, someone mails her an envelope with an identically dye-stained $100 bill. She's convinced it's a message and she knows who's sending it: Silas (Toby Kebbell), the leader of a ring of bank robbers she and her former FBI partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated as part of an extensive undercover operation nearly 17 years ago. Going rogue and blowing off her partner Antonio (Shamier Anderson), Erin starts tracking down all of Silas' known associates, none of whom are happy to see her since her cover was ultimately blown. She eventually works her way to Silas' sleazy, money-laundering lawyer DiFranco (Bradley Whitford), who's been holding the take and doling it out as requested in clandestine park handoffs to Silas' drug-addled girlfriend Petra (Tatiana Maslany). As Erin predicted, Silas' money is running out and he's resurfaced to plan another robbery and settle old scores.
At its core, DESTROYER is another saga of a morally-conflicted cop, with Kidman fearlessly diving into her own TRAINING DAY crossed with a bit of BAD LIEUTENANT, with one shock value scene where she goes to absurd lengths to get info on Silas' whereabouts from one of his terminally-ill former accomplices. But director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (the trio also worked on 2005's AEON FLUX and 2016's terrifying THE INVITATION), have a few unexpected tricks up their sleeves beyond a cleverly-constructed ending and one incredibly intense robbery sequence. These are doled out slowly in a series of flashbacks to the undercover operation that play as a parallel timeline to the current events. Erin's job, boozing, and pill-popping are at the expense of fractured relationships with her ex Ethan (Scoot McNairy) and her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn), and as the backstory gradually fills in, you finally get a sense of the extent to which she's gone to numb the pain. Everyone in her life has written her off, with the possible exception of her sympathetic former FBI boss Gil (Toby Huss), who invites her to a Bible study, insisting "It's low-key...nobody's handling snakes," prompting one of the very few times present-day Erin cracks a sort-of smile. In the end, DESTROYER doesn't absolve Erin of her sins and doesn't ask the audience for sympathy, but Kidman succeeds in conveying the humanity underneath an irreparably damaged person who can't stop making terrible decisions. (R, 121 mins)
(US/Bulgaria/UK - 2019)
Following the French drama THE BOUNCER, Jean-Claude Van Damme gets another chance to go serious with the earnest but cliched WE DIE YOUNG. Hampered by obvious budget constraints, the film gets off to a clunky start with too many shots of a Bulgarian backlot unsuccessfully portraying the mean streets of Washington, D.C. (no streets have as many mailboxes and pay phones as these do), but it gets better and more compelling as it goes on. Set in a barrio war zone controlled by MS-13 kingpin Rincon (David Castaneda of the Netflix series THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY), who's already reaching "heavy is the crown" levels of paranoia, so much so that he really only trusts teenage drug delivery boy and collector Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez), who lost his older brother in Afghanistan and is doing everything he can to shield his younger brother Miguel (Nicholas Sean Johnny) from gang life. Rincon is preoccupied with the wedding of his baby sister Gabriella (Robyn Cara) and entrusts Lucas to deliver two bricks of heroin to a contact just outside his territory. But Lucas is distracted when he learns that Rincon's guys are planning to initiate Miguel into MS-13, so he never makes the drop and is instead pursued by Rincon's hot-headed cousin and ambitious second-in-command Jester (Charlie MacGechan). Fleeing for safety, they end up in the car of Daniel (Van Damme), an Oxycontin-addicted neighborhood mechanic and ex-Marine who lost his ability to speak when he took some shrapnel in a bomb blast in Afghanistan.
Set over the course of Gabriella's wedding day, WE DIE YOUNG turns into a standard-issue, urban "survive the night" scenario with Rincon's guys eventually catching Lucas and Miguel, forcing Daniel to channel the long-dormant warrior within to mount a daring one-man rescue. Making his narrative feature debut, Israeli-American documentary filmmaker Lior Geller has obviously spent time worshiping at the altar of Alfonso Cuaron, with a couple of reasonably well-executed handheld, long-take chase sequences, both in a car (complete with blood splattering against the lens, as required by law) and on foot. The problem is that you've seen them all before, along with the heavy-handed digital insertion of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument into the background to remind you that This Is America, and all the hackneyed literary allusions with Daniel trying to get Lucas to read A Tale of Two Cities and Rincon serving as an ersatz Shakespearean figure who even quotes The Merchant of Venice at one point. To his credit, Castaneda tries to bring some complexity to a potentially cartoonish character, and Van Damme (one of 37 credited producers) does a fine job letting his aged face, pinched into an almost constant contorted grimace due to Daniel's chronic pain, speak volumes. But for the most part, there's nothing new here--the kid who's been sucked into the gang life trying to keep his little brother from the same fate, the SCARFACE trope of the powerful gangster being possessive of his little sister, the quiet loner silently suffering in a shell of his former self until he has a reason to take action. In the end, it's a decent enough Redbox rental, as Geller gussies it up with some occasionally effective documentary immediacy, and its three solid lead performances (Castaneda and Rodriguez were both in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO as well) give it a little more credibility than those early Bulgarian backlot scenes would initially indicate. (R, 93 mins)