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Ebiri: Homefront Doesn’t Let Statham Be Statham

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I never thought I’d see the day when Winona Ryder would steal a movie right out from under Jason Statham and James Franco, but we live in interesting times. Homefront, scripted by Sylvester Stallone (or should that be “Academy Award–winning screenwriter Sylvester Stallone”?) and directed by Gary Fleder, is a thoroughly boilerplate bayou actioner, with one notable feature. It’s got good villains – nasty, delirious, stupid villains, among them Franco and Ryder – and for that it’s almost worth seeing. Almost.

Statham is in his usual mode here as a man with a past: This time, it’s a former DEA agent named Broker (which must have been created by some sort of Jason Statham Character Name Generator) who once infiltrated a bunch of meth-dealing bikers and wound up being sorta, kinda responsible for the death of the gang leader’s son. He’s haunted by this event and has now settled in a remote Louisiana town with his young daugh…

Wait. I know what you’re thinking: Why in God’s name would anyone ever cast Jason Statham as a guy haunted by the fact that he caused someone’s death?? Jason Statham lives to cause people’s deaths. This is the first of Homefront’s many subtle missteps. By making Statham a regretful lawman, it neutralizes his main talent, effectively neutering him. It also telegraphs the kind of mostly watered-down movie we’re about to see.

Broker’s attempts to start a new life and keep a low profile unravel when his daughter gets picked on at school and winds up demonstrating some of the moves dad taught her. Soon enough, Broker is all a-tangle with the bully’s family, which includes Gator (Franco), a meth dealer who wants to expand his operation beyond the confines of this hillbilly backwater, and Gator’s angry biker-groupie girlfriend, Sheryl (Ryder). They’re the couple from hell, but they have dimension. Gator has a certain white-trash snottiness – early on, we see him chasing away teenage tweakers and scoffing at the low quality of their product. But it’s Sheryl that we’re truly fascinated by. A pissy, beautiful harridan who seems to know the right thing to do but is incapable of ever doing it, she obviously hates the idea of having to consort with bikers and meth heads, but tolerates it if it gets her what she wants. But what does she actually want? How did she wind up here? Who is this woman? Unfortunately, the film shows no interest in answering these questions; I’m not even entirely sure what happened to her at the end.

Breaking Bad it ain’t, but the sleaziness of Gator and Sheryl goes a long way toward making Homefront watchable. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand why it’s a Jason Statham movie in the first place. His domain is in the parodic, surreal extremes of the action genre, where violence, goofy acrobatics, and physics-defying, stone-faced badassery all come together. (Occasionally, he tries his hand at more serious material, as he did earlier this year with the decent Redemption.) You’d think that the flamboyance of the bad guys here would set up Statham well for his brand of cartoonish violence, but alas, he spends much of the film trying to keep his anger and his talents under check. To be fair, the film is simply biding its time until the hero finally blows up, but when the action climaxes inevitably arrive, they lack the gonzo delirium of the Transporter or Crank movies. It’s all serviceable at best, but it could have easily starred a more generic, anonymous action star. And Jason Statham should never be anonymous. Winona forever.

Photo: Justin Lubin/Open Road Films