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Director: Peter Billingsley
Writers: Andy Lieberman (screenplay) (as A.J. Lieberman), Nick Thornborrow (graphic novel)
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Hailee Steinfeld, Jonathan Banks, Bill Paxton
Nick Barrow (Vince Vaughn) plans bank heists, big ones, and he’s very good at it. But his last job goes sour and he ends up on the bad end of a conversation with mob boss Victor Fuentes (Jordi Mollà), who thinks Nick knows more than he’s letting on. Meanwhile some dirty cops, led by Detective Keenan (Bill Paxton) are wanting him dead. His estranged daughter Kate (Hailee Steinfeld) gets marked so she and Nick go on the run as he tries to figure out how his plan brought him so much trouble.
It turns out the money, the mob boss and the corrupt cops are all connected and Nick unwittingly sold the job to some thieves who got murdered for it. Now with everyone after him, he figures he’s only got a short time before his luck runs out and somebody plugs him. With Kate the only thing in his life he cares about (her mother is a recovering alcoholic and the two barely know each other), he takes out a term life plan with full coverage with her as the sole beneficiary, but has to wait three weeks to get approved before it’ll pay out. That means he has to keep himself alive for 21 days, and a maybe a little harder, try to mend the broken fences between him and his daughter.
Directed by Peter Billingsley, who directed Vaughn in 2009’s Couples Retreat, Term Life is a strange mix of black comedy, thriller, action and parody, though none of those descriptors come easily and the movie is never really good at any of them. With names like Vaughn and Jon Favreau, you might expect some comedy and to be sure, there are some moments that elicit laughs, though it’s hard to tell if it’s intentional. That starts with Vaughn’s hair (which is even poked fun of in the movie), a mop top that looks like he’s a member of 60s pop band revival. There’s the deadpan narration throughout as well that sounds like the filmmakers used the first practice recording Vaughn made the day he showed up on set. It’s spectacularly low-key and inane and makes you wonder if someone lost a bet. There’s also the story, which is hackneyed and full of tropes but oddly compelling in many good moments. It’s like a pulp novel adaptation (it’s actually a graphic novel written by Nick Thornborrow with a screenplay by A.J. Lieberman) that is part spoof and part genuine thriller. And part LifeTime Channel family drama.
Vaughn is no action hero. The closest he’s come to that might be 1997’s Lost World: Jurassic Park. He plays one here though, and while he doesn’t quite have the moves of Liam Neeson or Bruce Willis, he’s scrappy in fight for your life way that lacks all the style we’re used to in this genre but tries to be more authentic. It takes more than twenty minutes before any of that kicks though, and the film as a whole to find its (weak) footing. The opening act is awkwardly paced and delivered, with Vaughn stiffly going through the motions with a lot of that droning narration mentioned earlier. Steinfeld shows up (in a great performance) but doesn’t fair much better at first, their rocky relationship a hodgepodge of father/daughter standards in movies that you know will only bring them together more closely by the end. She knows he’s a thief and while that is a source of contention at the start, she soon becomes enthralled by his observational skills and finds herself casing bakeries as practice. She also learns how to shoot a pistol at a carnival using a BB gun. It’s not hard to see where it’ll all end up.
Paxton comes off best as the cornered detective feeling the pressure and trying to tie up the loose ends. The character is typical and does typical things as that character, but Paxton is effective given what he must do. He has some genuinely good moments, as do the rest of that cast, but is wholly stunted by a script that lets them down and sadly, a director who simply can’t do anything to make this interesting. The instinct is to think this will be a lot of cheesy fun, like a B movie with top stars, a kind of so-bad-it’s-great movie you can wrap your inner guilty-pleasure fingers around. It’s not. I think it wants to be. But it’s not.
There are moments that make you question what your watching, like you should be observing more carefully as if the filmmakers are doing something so creatively ingenious it’s transcendent. But that’s wishful thinking. Nick talking to his daughter on a park bench while eating ice cream talking about how to rob a bank is so perversely rudimentary it’s almost offensive, yet you watch, waiting, feeling like there is something you’re missing. You want it to be meaningful, clever and poetic somehow, and in the hands of people who understand that better, say the Coen brothers, it would be. Here, it’s empty and so obviously setup to make a future scene work, it’s downright frustrating. Then there’s moments when it does work. Paxton has a tremendous scene with Shea Whigham that is the most jarring in the film and makes you wonder why anyone didn’t see that and decide this is where the movie should be going.
What is happening here? Do the people behind this movie knows what they made? Is this fodder to create buzz (and reviews like this) or a genuine attempt to make a thriller? The many thin layers are only loosely given any weight and none are particularly joyful to watch. Billingsley has a very talented cast who seem to think they are in a different movie (an extended cameo by Terrence Howard is fantastic), but does so little with them, it feels like test footage for a television pilot on late night cable. The stunts are limited but poorly done (in one fight scene that would be three minutes of action choreography in any other movie, Nick taps a bad guy on the back who then literally throws himself out a third story window), scenes shift from one to the other with no real flow, characters have no depth, and worse, we don’t have any investment in any of them. It’s bland with a capital B. Nick is a bad guy. I mean not a ‘bad’ guy like he’s mean to his daughter, but he’s an actual criminal, and yet we’re supposed to want him to win. Yes, that’s because badder guys want him dead, a seriously threadbare trope that gets recycled in so many films, but why do we even care? Vaughn stands around limp-armed trying to hold his belly in like he’s not sure where to he’s supposed to be. That sums up the film in general. It knows it’s supposed to be doing something. It’s put on the costume and knows the lines, but then it just stands there waiting.