Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Movie Review: El Camino Christmas (2017)



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The plot: Eric (Luke Grimes) has arrived to El Camino, Arizona, in search of his lost father. However, he soon finds himself in a bizarre hostage situation when he, local policeman Carl Hooker (Vincent D’Onofrio), mother Kate (Michelle Mylett) and her son, and town drunk Larry (Tim Allen) are stuck inside of a liquor store. The officers outside, particularly Sheriff Fuller (Kurtwood Smith) and Deputy Calhoun (Dax Shepard) have no idea what’s going on, and the situation inside is far from cut-and-dry. It’s going to be a long Christmas.




Grimes works well as the center of the story, the guy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ultimately the least malicious of everyone here. D’Onofrio pulls out more from his character acting bag of tricks to play an extremely dickish cop who manages to convey a heinous mindset without it becoming unbearable to watch. If anything, this is worth checking out for him alone, if only to hear him sing about a redneck marrying a ballerina. Shepard as the local deputy gets across more of that weird respect for the police that he showed glimpses of back in CHiPs, and the way that he seems to be trying the most out of the whole force to make some good out of a pretty crappy situation makes for a nice presence. Kurtwood Smith as the sheriff is absolutely fantastic, balancing out a knowledge of how rock-stupid the rest of the local police are with a real willingness to call them out on their idiocy. His experience with delivering burns from That 70’s Show serves him quite nicely here. Allen turns in his most tolerable performance in a Christmas film yet, Jessica Alba is thankfully kept to the sidelines for the most part as the reporter commenting on the action, and Mylett as Kate fits in well with the overall dynamic.

So, we’re clearly dealing with the more subversive kind of Christmas film, one more focused on human darkness than the sense of goodwill connected to the holiday. And in that regard, it strikes a decent balance between the cynical and the sentimental. Through the inclusion of not only the trigger-happy police but also Allen’s Vietnam veteran, we’re shown how regardless of what the general ‘feel’ of the holiday is, life goes on regardless. And what goes on in life is rarely all sweetness and light. In fact, through that understanding, the film directly brings up how the more festive tone of the season is held back by how cynical we have become as a species; the direct reason why more subversive Christmas films exist in the first place. Characters like Eric, Deputy Calhoun and even Larry try and do good for goodness’ sake, while others either question why they would bother doing so or directly appeal only to their own ends. It even gets into the systems in place that create these attitudes, like how the sheriff brings up the lack of drug collars Hooker has brought in of late… which leads him to arresting someone on extremely flimsy evidence.

This is yet another film dealing in police corruption, except here it digs deeper and ends up tapping into plain old police incompetence. Like with Pork Pie, some of the darker comedy is derived from how much individual actions begin to snowball and generally make the situation worse than it would’ve been otherwise. Setting the majority of the film around one of the single weirdest hostage situations I’ve yet covered is an odd choice, and as the film goes on, it starts to abandon the Yuletide commentary for commentary on abuse of power on the part of Hooker. What I mentioned before about the differences in why certain characters try and do good as opposed to others? That starts to fall away after a while, and even though the forced social connections made during the situation are solid, it starts to feel less and less like the Christmas setting has a real purpose in the film. On its own, this could’ve been a decent take on the Southern border style of crime story that Breaking Bad made popular (the mentions of making crystal meth and the twangy guitar soundtrack add to that), but when it tries to force in Christmas sentiment, it feels forced.

Part of that is out of how some of the bigger moments of sentiment are… embarrassing, quite frankly. Like the pregnant news reporter (Mother Mary allegory, anyone?) or the guy who’s trying to do good who ends up struck in his side during one of the shootouts (Jesus getting speared) or the autistic son of Kate who only talks right at the end after being shown kindness. That last one is honestly surprising because, as soon as it was brought up in-film that he has autism, I immediately thought that something disastrous was about to go down. Between the black comedic tone of the film, which makes itself known rather quickly, and the inclusion of Tim “Political correctness gone mad” Allen, I thought we were going to end up with him being made into a joke. Something along the lines of “is that kid retarded?” or similar. Instead, it’s treated with an astounding amount of normalcy, as if it’s just a condition that millions of people have and isn’t something to be condescending about. How is it that a Christmas hostage film manages to get that right, and yet so much of the real world doesn’t? Outside of that, though, you can tell that Theodore Melfi had a hand in the writing here, as this has the same difficulties as Hidden Figures as far as aiming for emotional resonance. It’s too cheesy to land when it needs to, and it’s too dark for the sentiment to feel within rights to begin with.

All in all, while this film is fairly decent, I can’t say that I’ll be looking at this as any kind of great example of darker Christmas stories. The acting is good, the production values are likewise, and the writing does well enough when it comes to looking at what prevents the Christmas season from feeling like such, both because of the contemporary mindset of the people and the circumstantial pressures of the outside world. Of course, that’s when it bothers to stick to the Christmas side of things; for the most part, this plays the keystone cop antics so straight that it just feels like another film getting in on the trend of pointing out the problems with U.S. policemen. Besides, when it comes to films about hostage situations set around Christmas, we all know that there’s a film out there that does it better.

It ranks higher than The LEGO Ninjago Movie, as this film doesn’t feel like a massive step down from what came before it. If anything, knowing Tim Allen’s output in more festive productions, this is better than I was expecting it to be. However, since this is still rather dull around the edges, it falls short of Nerdland, which was definitely muddled but still had a much clearer focus and a better idea of how to explore what it wanted to explore.

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