Inherently Poor Vice
Thematically related to far better movies like I, Robot, Surrogates and – most ambitiously – Westworld, Vice is fatally wounded by a restrictive budget, a terrible female lead, and a comatose Bruce Willis.The premise is both laudable and intriguing – and definitely rich for mining – with a near-future scenario that sees a powerful corporation providing exotic entertainment in the form of a very real form of virtual reality. Human-like clone-robots are used to populate this environment, where high-paying guests can rape, torture and kill their way through their most grotesque desires. Whether you want to be a bank robber or a serial killer, your deepest, darkest fantasies can become a reality at VICE. When a ‘resident’ slave escapes though, a kill squad is sent after her, and it’s up to one lone cop to get to the seedy truth behind the resort's powerful organisation.Not wholly unlike The Purge, where a high concept backdrop was underutilised in what was essentially a home invasion flick, Vice’s greatest ideas are often sidelined – sometimes by choice, but more likely by budgetary constraints – in favour of stripping things down to more banal run-and-gun tedium. Which is a shame, because, aside from the acting, the action is distinctly underwhelming throughout and, oddly, its only in a few brief snippets of dialogue that we find some semblance of interest in this mess. There’s definitely a good idea in here – and, more importantly, one which perhaps doesn’t simply retread its oblique Westworld heritage – but it’s almost entirely wasted.
These days a digital shoot can give even fairly disappointing low budget fare like this a decent look, and Vice presents itself quite well, initially positing this depraved ‘pleasuredome’ where the rich can be openly depraved and legally act like criminals. It even interjects some we-need-much-more-of-this dialogue between Thomas Jane’s maverick cop and Bruce Willis’s smug CEO about how the facility was supposed to let people vent their inner demons and cleanse themselves to be better members of society, but how it has actually had the effect of getting people addicted to criminal acts which they then take back into the ‘real’ world. It’s a great moment. A lone, great moment, and even the bad acting doesn’t take away from the ideals behind it. But it’s soon smothered under the rest of the mundane action.
Ironically, Thomas Jane and Bruce Willis are arguably not the worst things about this film. Jane looks terrible, and is way too intense for his clichéd I-don’t-play-by-the-rules cop role, but he’s engaging enough. And Willis, whilst seemingly channelling Steven Seagal in his almost incoherent whispering of the dialogue, is still tolerable enough as the bad suit behind it all, desperate to protect his ‘dream’. You have to wonder why, after something like Surrogates, he would agree to this – but perhaps it’s his recent taste in quality sci-fi (Looper) that got him hooked to this sub-standard DTV-er. And sure, it’s another nail in the coffin that he phones in his performance, but the film’s true failure – beyond its underutilisation of the interesting concepts that form the backdrop – is probably more closely related to the casting of nobody Ambyr Childers in what amounts to the lead role.
Watch the superior Blade Runner, The Matrix, I, Robot or Surrogates – or even indie flick The Machine – instead.
Childers is abysmal. The kind of terrible actress whose credits include the role of “milk skinned blonde” in Gangster Squad. She’s a daytime soap veteran who never should have made it to the Big Screen. And, unfortunately her character is supposed to be this Neo-esque naive heroine, who even gets her chance to unlock secret powers along the way to unlocking the secrets behind her origins (just one of many wasted, trite, Matrix nods). I don’t think there’s a single scene where Childers is plausible, let alone convincing – not even working behind a bar – and, whatever else the rest of the cast are doing, she brings the whole movie crashing down when the focus is upon her character doing anything.
Is Vice unbearable to watch? No. There are initially enough decent ideas to get you intrigued, and there are enough fleeting moments of interest sparingly peppered across the piece to just about draw you back in despite increasingly waning attention. But it’s one of those movies which just needed a bigger budget, a much better director, a better cast, and undoubtedly a significantly better lead heroine. Wasting its high concept backdrop, it gambles on developing the ideas with a sequel – again, not wholly unlike The Purge – but that will almost certainly never happen. And based on this evidence, that’s only a good thing.
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