Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Term Life (2016)

Nick Barrow (Vince Vaughan) works as a planner for all sorts of heists, though he doesn’t involve himself in crimes where people get killed or actually hurt. His last plan for stealing quite a bit of money being held as evidence doesn’t work out terribly well, though. Someone murders the group that were his clients, which makes the father of their leader rather unhappy. Unfortunately, Viktor (Jordi Mollà), as the man is called, is a big Mexican cartel boss, so he’s bound to seek someone – like a certain planner he just might suspect to have sold his plan to two groups at the same time – to blame for the death of his son and do nasty things to him.

The first little talk between Viktor and Nick ends with the cartel boss leaving Nick in the hands of his goons to go and fetch Nick’s estranged teenage daughter Cate (Hailee Steinfeld) as a tool of persuasion. Fortunately, Nick escapes and grabs a rather unwilling Cate before Viktor can get his hands on her and goes on the lam with her. It’s really a rather awkward way for a father and a daughter to reconnect, particularly since Nick’s actual plan right now isn’t to find a way to get Viktor off his back so much than it is to keep Cate and himself alive until a freshly signed life insurance policy comes into effect and Nick can die with a good conscience.

Exacerbating the problem of survival is the fact that the people who actually killed Viktor’s son and his gang, a group of corrupt policemen lead by Joe Keenan (Bill Paxton), are on Nick’s and Cate’s trail too; and let’s not even speak of the father-daughter trouble ahead.

Peter Billingsley’s crime thriller and father-daughter (sort of) road movie Term Life certainly is not an original film: it’s full of well-worn character types going through well-worn plot points until things finish on a bit too much of a happy end. It is, however, also a well-directed film chock full of fine actors breathing life into their stock characters. There are not just Vince Vaughn and professional teenager (who is actually really good at playing this sort of role while feeling real and not becoming annoying) Hailee Steinfeld. This is the sort of film that can cast Annabeth Gish for what amounts to a single shot of a telephone conversation with Steinfeld, just happens to include guys like Shea Whigham or Mike Epps among Bill Paxton’s gang, and adds Jonathan Banks and Terrence Howard for supporting roles. Basically, it’s a bit of a dream cast for this sort of thing, and elevates what could be a film going through the motions into something at least much more lively.

When there’s action, Billingsley does stage it well, if not spectacularly; I couldn’t shake the feeling spectacle wasn’t really in the budget.

Billingsley does have a nice, straightforward directing style that works well when it comes to supporting actors doing their thing, and isn’t interesting in wowing the audience with style. Rather, it’s the kind of direction that puts itself in the service of characters and plot and prepares room for them to breathe. Which is just the right sort of approach for this sort of film, if you ask me.

The script might not be original but it features quite a few good scenes and no bad ones (which makes it a good film in a Howard Hawks sense as well as in my book) with particularly the father-daughter conflict feeling believable enough to make me root for the two to patch things up and survive. In general, most scenes here have a moment, a line or a dialogue exchange that feel more real, more interesting, or just more alive than usual in this particular sub-genre. It’s not enough to start mumbling about this being a future classic but most certainly enough to turn Term Life into a satisfying genre film that puts more effort in than it strictly needs to.

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