Film Review: Vice

Bruce Willis sleepwalks his way through a 'Westworld'-meets-'Blade Runner' knock-off and with material this dull, you can't blame him for nodding off.

Sit down, children, and I’ll tell you a tale: Back in the ’80s and ’90s there were these things called video stores, warehouse-sized shops filled with rows upon rows of new and old movies that you could rent or buy for your home viewing pleasure. And sprinkled in amongst the familiar titles that boasted big stars and even bigger theatrical box-office grosses were movies making their first appearance on any screen. These movies were known as “direct to video” (later, “direct to DVD”) releases: B, C and D-grade pictures filled with forgotten screen idols, low-budget production values, barely competent action sequences and the promise of lurid bedroom scenes. It’s an era that Bruce Willis must remember well, because his big-budget action pictures were often stacked alongside those DTV releases, in the hopes that, should all 10 copies of Striking Distance or The Last Boy Scout be checked out, customers might be tempted to snap up a similar-sounding movie like Hard to Die or Maximum Force instead.

At the time, Willis probably never thought there’d come a time when his name would be above the title of one of those knock-offs instead of the real thing. But that future has come to pass with the release of Vice, a contemporary direct-to-video movie that, thanks to the collapse of the home entertainment market, is getting a limited theatrical run primarily as a means to hype its day-and-date VOD release. The DTV trappings are hard to miss, be it the limited number of sets, the stiff performances and stiffer dialogue, the copious ideas stolen from other, better movies, and the roster of executive producers that’s longer than the cast list. Willis clearly recognizes the kind of production he’s involved in, because he limits his screen time to a single location (suggesting all his scenes were filmed in two days, maybe three) and, with one exception, avoids any sequence that would require him to lift a gun or throw a punch. In exchange, the filmmakers get to paper the movie’s press materials with his name and image, lending the movie a legitimacy it really shouldn’t possess. So everybody wins…except the audience.

Seriously, if a movie ever deserved a “Buyer Beware” rating, it’s Vice—the mash-up of Westworld and Blade Runner that nobody wanted or needed. In the vaguely near-future, entrepreneur Julian Michaels (Willis) uses the advancements made in cybernetic technology to open a resort called VICE, where guests can indulge in their darkest, most violent fantasies with a staff populated by artificial humans. One of these cyborgs is K.E.L.L.Y (Ambyr Childers), whose pre-programmed mind casts her as a young bartender on the verge of quitting her job and blowing town, only to be killed (or worse) night after night by paying VICE customers. But on her latest resurrection, something goes wrong and her mind is flooded by memories of her past lives and deaths, leading her to rebel against her creators and escape into the “real” world. Once there, she teams up with a rogue scientist (Bryan Greenberg) and an angry cop (Thomas Jane) and becomes the linchpin in a plan to shut the resort down once and for all.

Working on what must have been a severely small budget, director Brian A. Miller keeps the action (such as it is) confined to a series of small rooms, occasionally punctuated by a chase through an abandoned warehouse or two. He also strives to replicate Blade Runner’s future noir visual palette, planting key lights behind Venetian blinds and heavy curtains to illuminate the dark, sparsely decorated sets. Kudos to his ingenuity, but it would be a stretch to call the direction “stylish,” and outright laughable to refer to Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore’s script as “original” or the film itself as “proficient.” Vice is glum, stolid stuff that’s not worth the price of a video rental, let alone a movie ticket.

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