Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis is perhaps the most thrilling, tightly-paced ‘90s action movie of all time, but because it released in Summer 2018, it’s going to be the most refreshing action experience you’ll find at the cinema. Because Hotel Artemis pays homage so closely to classics like The Terminator and Repo Man, it doesn’t care about epic team-ups or any kind of superpowers. And even though you might as well call it a sci-fi dystopia, it’s grounded in realistic action and smaller, personal stories.
Hotel Artemis, which hits theaters on Friday, tells the story of Jodie Foster’s “Nurse” who runs a secret hospital for criminals in 2028’s grim Los Angeles. She leads a staggeringly good cast that includes Dave Bautista as Everest, her muscle, along with Brian Tyree Henry, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, and Charlie Day as guests during one night when riots erupt in the city over the privatization of water. The always delightful Jeff Goldblum plays the city’s biggest crime boss with Zachary Quinto as his eager-to-please beta male son. The aforementioned riots send the entire city, Hotel Artemis included, into total chaos.
Director Drew Pearce, whose past experience include a story credit on Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and a co-writing credit on Iron Man 3, called his directorial debut “willfully esoteric” in a recent interview with Inverse. And he means that in the best way possible.
In a summer largely defined by blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and Solo: A Star Wars Story that aim to please as wide an audience as possible, Pearce took an unapologetic approach to crafting Hotel Artemis that adds a refreshing air of authenticity to the action flick. Even John Wick, the most contemporary point of comparison for Hotel Artemis, feels bloated by comparison, albeit with better action.
Instead of building out a huge cinematic universe and trying to tell personal stories inside of it, Pearce took the opposite approach, focusing on a single night of action and merely hinting at a larger universe full of crazy technology. “I wanted it to be like the movies I loved as a teenager,” Pearce told Inverse in a recent interview. “Like Repo Man, the first Terminator, and stuff like that. Being able to tell a small emotional story and let that be the keyhole to a kind of bigger universe”
Pearce accomplishes that in spades, conveying important relationships by dramatizing implied history. When Goldblum’s “Wolf King” finally shows up, for instance, his reputation literally precedes him. We learn so much about these characters just by hearing them talk about each other to each other as a means of organic exposition.
“The small movies remind you that the attention to detail is everything,” Pearce said. “And also maybe sometimes people crave something that feels a bit more handcrafted and a bit more homemade. Even if audiences don’t know they’re craving that, it’s baked into their DNA.”
Like Pearce’s beloved ‘80s and ‘90s action movies, Hotel Artemis clocks in at a brisk 93 minutes, virtually unheard of for a summer action movie in 2018. Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry play wounded bank robbers who go to the Artemis after a heist leaves them both wounded. There, they encounter Sofia Boutella’s badass assassin and Charlie Day’s asinine arms dealer. Each character picks up a codename according to the room they’re staying in. Brown is Waikiki, Henry is Honolulu, Boutella is Nice, and Day is Acapulco.
We learn almost nothing about these characters’ real lives, a tantalizing stroke of genius that will leave viewers wanting more and maybe even re-watching Hotel Artemis. The little info we do learn is about the Nurse’s tragic past — which we won’t spoil here — and how she wound up managing this insane business. They’re all criminals, but they aren’t villains. They’re humans with nuanced personalities surviving in a cruel world that’s gone to shit.
Negative reviews of Hotel Artemis will probably complain about how we don’t get enough character development or backstory or sequel teasers, but this old-school style of filmmaking cares more about the fun pulp of the viewing experience than it does about satisfying the viewer’s need for closure.
This kind of story is a lost art that Pearce is trying to resurrect as he builds tension in Hotel Artemis organically until we reach an explosive final act. We don’t even know what the ultimate fate of these many characters because at the end of the day, it’s more about going along for the ride than it is knowing what happens next.