James Franco is both the best and the worst thing about Homefront, the new backwoods thriller in which Jason Statham turns rednecks into broken-necks.
"My name is Gator Bodine," Franco drawls, hitting the long "i" like NASCAR’s Geoff rather than The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro.
Then he proceeds to beat a young tweaker with an ax handle and threatens to pour gasoline down the throats of the assembled small-time meth cooks who represent his competition before running them out of town.
Gator’s the sort of role that could have been played by quite literally anyone with a Y chromosome. You just don’t expect much from such a run-of-the-mill villain, so seeing Franco bring him to life is a real hoot.
The problem is, it feels like performance art. Every time you catch the gleam in his sleepy eyes, it’s as though you’re being let in on the joke. "Look at me," that twinkling squint seems to be screaming. "I’m an Oscar-nominated, modern-day Renaissance man playing a guy named Gator Bodine!"
Throw in Kate Bosworth as Gator’s junkie sister and Winona Ryder as his used-up, beer-slinging, biker chick girlfriend and Homefront falls victim to the most distracting casting since the parade of presidents in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Two years after bringing down a meth-running biker gang, recently widowed DEA agent Phil Broker (Statham) has retired to sleepy Rayville, La., so his 10-year-old daughter, Maddy (Izabella Vidovic), can grow up near where her mother did. He’s renovating a once-beautiful old home with riverfront access and horse trails. What more could a young girl want? "Wi-Fi," she sighs.
When Maddy stands up for herself and punches the school bully (Austin Craig), his mom (Bosworth) blows onto the scene like a white-trash hurricane. First, she demands justice for her wronged son from the school, the sheriff or both. Getting none, she shames her husband (Marcus Hester) into confronting Broker, who sends him flipping to the dirt. Finally, believing her entire lineage has been disrespected, she enlists Gator to unleash his patented brand of messing with people.
Even though Gator insists she’s overreacting — it’s never a good sign when a meth-cooking dirtbag is a family’s voice of reason — he quickly dispatches thugs to hassle Broker at a gas pump.
Broker even more quickly separates them from their dignity. So Gator pulls out the big guns: He slashes one of Broker’s tires before stealing Maddy’s stuffed bunny and her pet kitten.
Homefront’s big bad is a purloiner of kittens.
Unfortunately for Broker, Gator also stumbles across his real identity hidden in some of his old DEA files. Gator attempts to trade that information to the imprisoned leader of the biker gang, who desperately wants Broker dead, in exchange for statewide meth distribution.
By-the-numbers mayhem ensues.
Directed by Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) and based on the novel by Chuck Logan, Homefront was written by Sylvester Stallone years ago, intended to be the final installment of his Rambo saga. It feels like it’s been sitting around much, much longer.
Broker’s a simple guy, no longer a lawman, who just wants to be left alone. You’ve seen it a hundred times. Take away the meth and the assault rifles and it could’ve been a Western.
Or keep them and it could’ve been the best movie Steven Seagal never made.
Statham never truly gets to showcase his innovative hand-to-hand — and foot-to-face — bedlam.
He’s stuck playing the stoic stranger, and his budding relationship with the school psychologist (Rachelle Lefevre) never goes anywhere. Of course, even referencing that dropped plotline shines a light on the questionable idea that a tiny school in a bayou backwater would even have its own psychologist.
And despite some early promise, Franco is never able to turn Gator into anything approaching another Alien, his deliriously loopy, drug-dealing rapper from March’s Spring Breakers. Even he succumbs to Homefront’s B-movie trappings.
And he’s certainly no match for Statham.
Then again, neither is the script.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com