Hollywood’s visions of the future tend to make hellscapes of major cities. Joining the Detroit of ‘RoboCop’ and the NYC of ‘Escape from New York’ is Hotel Artemis’s Los Angeles, where the citizens of 2028 riot for water rights and criminals are everywhere. The film’s title refers to a secret emergency room for wounded gangsters over which Jodie Foster’s alcoholic, haunted Nurse presides, with the help of Dave Bautista’s heavy. One night, the patients are joined by LA’s Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum, at the nastier end of his spectrum), the crime boss who owns the hospital, and an injured cop (Jenny Slate) who has a tie to the Nurse’s shady past.
It’s an atmospheric setup, with the faded ‘Hotel Artemis’ offering a nicely seedy backdrop for a cast of good-looking, increasingly antagonistic eccentrics. Offering the closest thing to a moral compass in this den of thieves is the cool and charismatic Sterling K Brown as a badly hurt bank robber.
The problem is that screenwriter-turned-director Drew Pearce (‘Iron Man 3’) doesn’t get the build-up-to-payoff ratio right: Before any real conflict takes place, a lot of time is spent establishing characters and situations that don’t really matter. As with its fellow underworld action-thriller ‘John Wick’, an elaborate mythology informs these people’s interactions; but while that Keanu Reeves franchise was explosive, the action here is underwhelming. Still, at a tight 90 minutes, Pearce deserves credit for packing the screen with interesting characters, rather than just punches and gunplay. He even makes us care, for a moment, about these smooth criminals.