The script for "Homefront" is credited to Sylvester Stallone, and you can tell. For better or worse, the work here is relatively close to the sensibility of the "Rambo" and "Rocky" auteur. The upside is that this is not another superheroes-save-the-universe movie, making the picture a near-rarity in action cinema nowadays. The stakes are personal, rather than astronomical. Blood is spilled copiously, rather than to a PG-13 minimum. It's not exactly idiosyncratic, but at least it doesn't feel as if it came off the focus-tested-$150-million-movie conveyor belt.
"Homefront" is based on a book, rather, one of a relatively long-running series of stories about lead character Phil Broker (played here with Jason Statham - as always, with unending calm.) As the movie represents it, it's standard airport novel stuff: Broker is a bad ass-with-a-tortured-soul; a former DEA agent who retired to the countryside with his daughter after an undercover assignment went too far. Shockingly, his past -- in the form of a wronged, drug-running biker gang -- catches up with him soon after he retires. He's forced to shoot down the bad guys and save the day one final time, making requisite quips when opportune moments present themselves. It's nothing you haven't seen before.
Director Gary Fleder searches for the tough guy energy you'd get from a Parker novel, but his film is barely worthy of Jack Reacher. He clearly takes great pleasure in the carnage, for one thing: One of the aforementioned bikers gets sprayed down with a parade of bullets in an early sequence, a small explosion of blood corresponding to each bullet hit, until all that's left is a red-splattered pulp. Yet his directorial chops don't match his visceral ambitions: The many sequences of Broker doing battle with his low-class-criminal foes are slashed to ribbons, with more camera angles than blows landed, in most cases. His aesthetic is so manic that he can't even hold a shot long enough to watch two punches land. It doesn't make much sense; a jittery film about a cool and collected character.
In fact, the picture's vibe is more simpatico with James Franco's bug nuts performance as villain Gator Bovine, a meth head kingpin played with a sinister joie de vivre. Bovine runs the crime scene of the small southern town where Statham and his daughter find themselves, and Franco, as always, takes great relish in his role. His character is a scoundrel, prone to stealing children's pets and kidnapping and whatever other dastardly stuff the script can dream up for him. Instead of searching for internal integrity, Franco plays the man as a pathetic entity, his eyes bugging out, his desperation outpacing his intelligence.
Franco's Alien (from "Spring Breakers") was like a southern-rapper Jay Gatsby. Bovine is a guy who thinks he's Gatsby, but slowly but surely is realizing he's actually just a nobody. Franco manages to act out that very-specific internal conflict, entirely in between his lines of dialogue. He's become an incredible actor, prone to incredible risks and manic tics; the Nicolas Cage of the Bro Era. Unfortunately, the movie's not about him -- it's about Jason Statham's attempts to kill him.
Like many Sly Stallone movies, "Homefront" ends with a change of heart: The good guy realizes that violence is bad, and hurting people solves nothing. Without Sly's silly-but-sincere eye behind the camera, the moment doesn't play. It's merely disingenuous, a hollow tribute paid to morality after 85-minutes of fetishized violence. The low-to-the-ground stakes Stallone has built in here is much needed at the multiplexes; the rote philosophizing, not so much.
There was a quickly forgotten action potboiler called "The Last Stand" released earlier this year, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by South Korean action-cinema maestro Kim Jee-Woon. What was distinctive about that picture -- other than the direction -- was its gleeful embrace of bloodshed. Even 80-something-year-old women got in on the action in that movie, firing off six-shooter pistols at the bad guys. It was a movie that was honest about what it was: A celebration of how pleasurable audiences find on-screen violence. "Homefront," with its brutal beatings and squibs aplenty, is no different, yet it pretends to abhor the violence it trades in. I'm hardly convinced.