Here’s a bit of wisdom that I suspect Drew Pearce, the writer-director of stylish action drama Hotel Artemis, gleaned while making his film: If you have very little time reserved for emotionally resonant moments, put Jodie Foster in extreme close-up and let her emote however she wants. Pearce stacks his near-future dystopian story about a hospital for criminals with an all-star cast — Dave Bautista, Sterling K. Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Brian Tyree Henry, etc. But only Foster, playing the broken-down nurse who runs the hospital, gets the space to sort out her character’s feelings onscreen, despite Pearce having written potentially heart-tugging storylines for all characters. As good as Foster is as Jean Thomas/The Nurse, she can’t completely bring Hotel Artemis to life herself, because she’s not technically the lead.
A surface-level comparison for Hotel Artemis might be John Wick; it’s almost as though that no-violence-on-the-premises criminals club had been turned into a hospital, with an ensemble cast instead of a singular protagonist. But while John Wick is all action, no talk, Artemis is the polar opposite, Pearce stretching out the will-they-won’t-they (kill each other) tension as long as possible, until every violent criminal is trapped in this hotel. Pearce’s zinging dialogue, however, kept my attention long enough to wait for a sustained scene or two of Boutella, as international assassin Nice, whipping surgical tools at hired goons who’ve hammered through a wall to get her.
Pearce opens in the middle of a botched bank job, with Waikiki (Brown) and his brother Honolulu (Henry) accidentally nabbing six precious diamonds from an assistant of the Wolf King (Goldblum), as a citywide riot makes its way to downtown Los Angeles. The weird monikers are a rule of the Hotel Artemis, where management demands the use of code names by the criminals who hole up there. Waikiki and Honolulu head there after they’re shot by riot cops; beginning the story with the two brothers and their turbulent relationship — Honolulu is a perennial fuck-up — might suggest that the film will belong to them. But it doesn’t. Not exactly.
Once the brothers travel up the rickety old elevator of the Artemis and prove, via chips in their wrists, that their memberships are in good standing, The Nurse looms so large as a character that their stories seem almost frivolous. You see, The Nurse is essentially a prisoner in this decrepit art deco building. Agoraphobic and alcoholic, she abides by the rules set long ago for the Artemis, often telling every character that if even one rule is broken, then everything will fall apart, which is a good indication that this story will have her breaking the rules by the end.
The Nurse is also the only character with a fully realized backstory, though Pearce takes the time to provide one for everyone, no matter how inconsequential, which too widely disperses the energy and focus of the narrative. The Nurse’s sob story, her son having succumbed to drug addiction, is relayed through quick, impressionistic flashes into The Nurse’s memory, which are also the only moments that drop the hard-edged lighting and production design for a softer, dreamy look; they’re a breath of fresh air in this world of stuffy sitting rooms dominated by TV reports of a violent revolt for basic human rights.
Foster also gets many of the best lines in a dense script that has lots of them. When the Wolf King offers to murder The Nurse’s ex-husband for her, she responds, “He lives in Florida. Life took him out already.”
But, honestly, will I remember much from this film? It doesn’t seem likely. Maybe the dialogue. Just when I began digging a character, like Bautista’s grumpy orderly Everest, the restless Pearce darts over to the next well-dressed thug to introduce his dilemma, just to keep all the balls up in the air. Honestly, I kind of stopped caring about Waikiki and Honolulu, and by the time Hotel Artemis arrived at their epiphanic moment, I found myself wishing they’d been shaved from the story altogether. Whether it’s the too-harried pacing or too many central people vying for attention, the film’s heart never quite coalesces. Seizing it is like trying to grab a cloud. Pearce seems to want this movie to be both a neon pulp plot-heavy piece and a character-driven drama, and there’s just not enough time in a single film for all of it to work.
Still, Foster’s performance is worth talking about, specifically her delivery of Pearce’s searing one-liners, as when The Nurse is chatting with Nice about her wound and casually throws out: “This is America. Ninety-five percent of what I treat is bullet holes.” These quippy bits with a hint of insight hit and made me wish Pearce could write Foster a different role in a different film more focused specifically on her, because these two teamed up are deadly.