By: John M Jerva
In the realm of indie action cinema, there are those few filmmakers that never seem to disappoint. Even when their output isn’t necessarily their A game, they still manage to find a way to make something out of nothing and deliver a steady stream of action drenched entertainment that is character driven and offers a little something different to the masses. Filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson is certainly one of those filmmakers and with each entry in his filmography, he tends to do something that fans are craving while at the same time, putting a little mixture of the unknown into the finished product as well.
After switching gears with his last film which was the female centric WWII epic Hell hath No Fury, Johnson has returned to the sub-genre he has defined which is the crime saga. Johnson has that certain knack for developing a gritty, stripped-down criminal pic that serves up intriguing characters while at the same time delivering a little bang for the audience’s buck with throwback bloody action set pieces that rival anything done back in the 80’s and 90’s. This time around, Johnson gives us the crime thriller White Elephant which stars Michael Rooker, Olga Kurylenko, John Malcovich and the action icon himself Bruce Willis in one of his last onscreen performances. This is without a doubt, a solid cast for a lower budgeted indie action affair and everyone is game to deliver a true crowd pleasing, bullet riddled saga that will test the limits of automatic machine guns which are once again, one of the stars of a Jesse V. Johnson joint.
In terms of story, Johnson unfolds an unflinching film that tells the story of a former Marine turned hired killer who is world weary of the life he has chosen since leaving the service. As Gabriel Tancredi, Michael Rooker is our grizzled, stoic lead who is employed by criminal Entrepeneur Arnold Solomon, played with steely eyed fashion by Bruce Willis. Solomon, along with his lawyer Glen, played with the usual gravitas by John Malkovich, is looking to strike a deal with the Russians which would spell certain doom for their Mexican cartel counterparts. Tasked with taking out the cartel is Tancredi and his young hot shot protege Marine scout sniper-turned-hitman Carlos (Vadhir Derbez).
Carlos executes the hit to perfection but is unfortunately spotted by a pair of detectives who were staking out the cartel. The cops in question are Vanessa Flynn (Olga Kurylenko) and her partner and when Solomon learns of their intrusion, he orders a hit on the two-law enforcement officers and now Vanessa is in the crosshairs of the criminal empire that will stop at nothing to see her dead which prompts her to go on the run after a botched assassination attempt by Carlos and his crew which includes crooked cops.
This leads Vanessa on a collision course with Tancredi who isn’t all that he seems and now must face a difficult choice of honoring his pact with Solomon or respecting the wishes of his deceased wife while at the same time looking to retire and live out the rest of his life. Nothing is easy, however, as all this will eventually lead to a blood soaked and bullet filled climax that will leave very few left standing when all is said and done and the last round is fired.
When speaking of pacing, Johnson is one filmmaker that seems to know how to keep the proceedings moving along even if the action is not wall to wall. With White Elephant, there is enough sequences of carnage to satisfy but that doesn’t interfere with Johnson, who also co-wrote the script, being able to tell his story and sprinkle a little substance on the characters at play here. Even during the slower moments which are punctuated with the brief outbursts of mayhem, one is never bored or should be bored as Johnson unravels his story in this seedy world of hired guns, sociopathic criminals and crooked cops. There is never a scene that appears out of place and Johnson more than appeases the viewership for following along with his signature and trademark bombastic action scenes.
Like I said, White Elephant is another character driven opus from Johnson and the seasoned cast is battle ready and jocked up to sell the material on screen. Rooker, who was at one time an action star himself in the DTV 90’s heyday, is perfectly cast as the war weary Tancredi. Rooker brings his usual gravitas to the proceedings and plays the role with the right amount of cold-blooded finesse mixed in with a little sympathetic tinge. Here, Rooker gets to have fun by playing a character that is a little more layered while at the same time gets the opportunity to harken back to those glory days of action by letting loose in his violent sequences of heavy powered weaponry. I’ve always been a fan of Rooker, and it was nice to see him headline an action-thriller once again.
The rest of the cast does what they should with the material given and Kurylenko is solid in her scenes and gets to have a few nice moments with Rooker before proving once again that she’s no damsel in distress. Kurylenko, who usually plays the villain, is proving here that she has what it takes to headline an action film as she has in the past. She has definitely worked on her acting skills and is believable in the bad ass moments that the character must show us.
As the wild card protege to Tancredi, Carlos (Vadhir Derbez), works well off of Rooker and gives us the right amount of arrogance and swagger that the role of an upstart hitman needs. His character arc is a given, or at least it was to me, but Derbez does fine with the material at hand. His fate is sealed however, and I was pleased to see how his character was dealt with towards the end.
Malkovich and Willis are extended cameos as expected by each actor elevates the material in the scenes they are given. Malkovich has never dealt a bad performance and her as Solomon’s unscrupulous lawyer, he is as advertised. Willis, as we all know, is suffering from a disorder which has forced him to retire but here as the criminal leader Solomon, he delivers a cold and efficient performance and I’m pleased to say that this is one of his best performances since he started his DTV stage in his career. Willis even gets to let loose a little in one of the film’s bloodier moments and even though it’s not Die Hard, it was still great to see the action icon pop off numerous amounts of blanks.
Now it’s the action sequences that usually are the most fun to talk about and especially when it’s a Jesse V. Johnson movie. Like I stated before, this offering isn’t wall to wall bloodshed but that makes the sequences that are peppered throughout the first two/thirds of the film even more satisfying and in your face. Johnson knows how to set the stage as he comes from the stunt world himself and he never disappoints when the bullets start flying. Johnson always works in the practical world of stunts and that is a glorious distraction from the CGI filled spectacles we get nowadays. The special effects are real, the stunts are real, and the firepower is most certainly real. His style has always reminded me of Walter Hill as Johnson also loves to deliver unapologetic blood splattered drama that isn’t necessarily for the mainstream audience.
The finale is worth the price of admission alone as Johnson lets Rooker and Kurylenko loose and the firefight is what you’d expect from the action maestro. Massive amounts of rounds and blood squibs are utilized here, and the body county is impressive as always. Both stars get their moments to shine and there is more than your fair share of brutal kills to be had before the credits roll. The ending is loud and chaotic but also expertly staged so the audience can see the bloodletting to be had and this is one of Johnson’s better bullet riddled finales.
Overall, if you know Jesse V. Johnson, then you know what type of movie you’re getting and that couldn’t be any more of a good thing. Even when the filmmaker branches out, he still finds a way to deliver what we want to see but here with White Elephant, Johnson is in his stunt induced, bullet spraying wheelhouse. The cast do the material justice and Rooker is back in fine form dishing out some of the action heroism that he was known for once upon a time. Kurylenko makes another argument for giving her more of these roles and the action icons in Malkovich and Willis shine in their limited screentime.
There is enough savage action peppered throughout to satisfy the action itch and the finale is another crowd pleaser from Johnson who always seems to know how to put the cherry on top. Bottomline…if you’re a fan of Johnson’s then this movie will deliver and if you’re not, well then this might be a film to make you one when all is said and done.