Apart from a few exteriors and some flashbacks, the pungent, eccentric “Hotel Artemis” confines its story to a single night, 10 years in the future, inside the beautiful ruin of a downtown Los Angeles hotel. Outside, the worst riots in the city’s history rage on; Angelenos are thirsty, punished for their presumed sins by a near-total lack of access to L.A.’s corporate-owned water supply.
Like the assassin’s den in “John Wick,” the Artemis operates under a no-kill policy. Unlike the swank quarters in “John Wick,” this one has been retrofitted as an emergency room facility for career killers, thugs and lowlifes, who are given code names based on their suites. It’s essentially the Hotel Earle from “Barton Fink,” augmented by the latest in robotic surgical techniques for bullet extraction.
Speaking of “Barton Fink”: When Jodie Foster first appears as the mysterious figure known as the Nurse, fidgeting, muttering, doing a little hip-hoppity walk, she appears to be channeling a little bit of Steve Buscemi, along with Barbara Stanwyck. The Artemis may be owned by shadowy underworld figures, but the Nurse, as efficient as she is secretive, runs the place along with her mountain of an orderly, Everest (Dave Bautista).
The prologue, crisp and bloody, throws audiences smack in the middle of a messed-up bank robbery conducted by Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) and his junkie brother, Lev (Brian Tyree Henry). This immediately spills out into a street clash between police and the citizenry. Whatever political, economic and sociological advantages L.A. and California enjoy in 2018, according to writer-director Drew Pearce, it’s all going straight to hell in a few short years.
Sherman and Lev make it into the Artemis and are dubbed Waikiki and Honolulu, respectively; Waikiki is the unwitting owner of a very valuable pen belonging to a Malibu mobster known as Wolfking (Jeff Goldblum), who becomes Niagara upon check-in. Pearce’s story toggles among rooms and characters, all of whom are destined to not get along while they’re hiding out and making plans. Charlie Day is a coarse arms dealer trying to hail a heli-cab out of L.A.; Sofia Boutella portrays a French assassin who’s a Luc Besson dream and a sleek nightmare of knife-fighting and stiletto-kicking skills.
The movie’s nicely packed yet spacious enough to let its characters talk a little in between killings. A wounded police officer, played by a restrained and effective Jenny Slate, begs for shelter, and the Nurse relents because they share a connection “Hotel Artemis” reveals with the aid of the aforementioned flashbacks. Zachary Quinto snivels in prime form as the insecure son of Niagara, and Pearce’s screenplay saves some of its sharpest stuff for their less-than-idyllic relationship.
“Hotel Artemis” is Pearce’s feature directorial debut. It’s not on the level of “Snowpiercer,” say, where a hurtling train provides the momentum. But at its best, this one taps into a similar futuristic-societal-microcosm vibe. Pearce shapes bursts of action coherently yet kinetically. The movie benefits considerably from its sparing use of CGI and the deep saturation of expressive color provided by cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon.
There are times when the narrative stalls a bit, turning visually static rather than effectively claustrophobic. Pearce’s jaundiced way with a comeback, however, is most welcome. When a shooting victim asks Foster’s character whether she can patch him up, she shoots right back with a quick glare and the reply: “This is America, honey. Ninety-five percent of what I fix is bullet holes.”
Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.
Rating: R, for violence and language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In general release