Set in an unnamed futuristic city, Vaughn Stein’s debut feature Terminal is an eccentric but troubled neo-noir thriller. On paper the film sounds pretty intriguing: Margot Robbie as a dangerously ambitious assassin, Simon Pegg as a suicidal school teacher, Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons as a potty mouthed hitman and his apprentice, all of them caught up in a cat and mouse caper controlled by a mysterious Moriarty-type. Its sheer pulp with a great cast, but it doesn’t work.
Literally from the opening scenes, Terminal wobbles on its rails. Margot Robbie’s British accent is abominable, and for a film that’s basically a glorified showcase for Robbie (and, perhaps, cinematographer Christopher Ross) that’s a big misstep. That along with the forced oddball zaniness makes Margot’s character pretty grating. With Harley Quinn under her belt, Robbie doesn’t need another doe eyed, sex-kitten, bad ass on her resume, especially one this cringey. Her best scenes are the quieter one’s when she gets to act aside from the larger-than-life persona she keeps popping back to.
Stein’s vision is rooted in pulpy Noir, but the plot’s need to keep us guessing leaves it a bit of a headache. The typical twists and turns of a paperback thriller are here pulled off in daft, predictable, and forced ways. It’s all been done before, and the only thing that keeps us going, besides waiting for someone to actually get shot, is the seductive palate of stark colours and the lived-in dystopian production design.
It’s not a cruel dig to say the film is pure style over substance. The hair and makeup on Robbie is always stunning, the costumes too. Richard Bullock infuses the film with an over-crowded but sci-fi-inspired flare somewhere close to Gilliam’s Brazil which totally works for the story. Christopher Ross’s cinematography provides a comic book frame, perfect for Stein’s world. John Wick comparisons are easy thanks to the pop-colouring and posing, but Terminal doesn’t have Keanu Reeves to sell its oddities, or a script that knows what it is. Still, you could take a hundred pictures from this film and they would all look like neo-noir art.
The big silly opening credits feel indebted to Suicide Squad which, if you take that comparison and run with it, reveals Terminal’s singular issue: the main goal is to look “cool”. The leg work hasn’t been done in the script, so everything feels a bit flat. Those big bombastic accoutrements; the titles, the pizzazz, the theatre of it, are a distracting dressing.
Stein has made an overcomplicated black comedy which looks well-humoured but takes itself far too seriously. Terminal could have been fun if it just embraced its own preposterous nature and the explosive potential of its multiple eclectic parts. Between all those caricatured performances, the themes of trauma and revenge, not to mention the daft twists, the film has huge issues with tone.
A total cram of finale twists ends up feeling like a last-ditch effort to impress as opposed to the natural dramatic conclusion of a tightly woven mystery. The dark edge feels cheap and fetishized, the twists misfire, and its plain irritating by the end. Basically, Terminal spends too much time trying to look cool and not enough time being cool.
Dir. Vaughn Stein
Stars. Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, Dexter Fletcher, Mike Myers, Max Irons