Margot Robbie plays a waitress/stripper/killer in Vaughn Stein’s neon-lit pastiche.
An airless debut that says much about its writer-director’s cultural diet and little about anything else in the world, Vaughn Stein’s Terminal blends tropes from several sorts of crime flicks into a soundstagey affair that’s more brittle than hard-boiled. Attention will be paid thanks to star Margot Robbie (one of many producers here) and supporting players Simon Pegg and Mike Myers, but the box office will quickly forget this outing for the I, Tonya actress in anticipation of more sturdy vehicles to come.
One of those roles (just officially announced) will be that of Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, whose writer-director Quentin Tarantino has an influence here that is obvious long before Stein starts nodding cutely at him. (He recreates QT’s signature trunk-opening shot; he has Robbie plotting “bloody revenge” and brainstorming ways for Pegg’s Bill to kill…Bill.) In addition to Robbie’s revenge-minded diner waitress Annie (who goes by “Bunny” when she’s stripping at a nearby club), Stein offers two talkative hit men (Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons’ Vince and Alfred, respectively) whose chemistry and banter will not push Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent and Jules from any fan’s mind.
The two are working for the mysterious Mr. Franklin, who puts out contracts anonymously via voice-modulated phone calls, briefcases stashed in train terminal storage lockers and other tricks you may be able to imagine for yourself. (When his identity is finally revealed, it’s via a gag straight out of The Usual Suspects.) Franklin has instructed the fellas to camp out in a hotel room for days, waiting to shoot someone who will appear in a room across the street. They get testy with each other during the wait, but they have other problems they’re not aware of: At the film’s start, we saw Annie (hiding her identity under a Mia Wallace wig) promise Mr. F that she’d kill all his go-to hit men so he’d have no choice but to hire her instead.
That scene is an inauspicious start for the pic, as Stein keeps bouncing between extreme close-ups of Robbie’s eyes and lips, unsure what to do next. But his direction quickly becomes less distracting. The film warms a bit with the arrival of Pegg’s Bill, who is standing on a platform waiting sadly for a train he can throw himself under. But it’s the middle of the night, and a station janitor (Myers) informs him there won’t be another train for hours. So the suicidal English prof drags himself to the terminal’s sole diner (dubbed End of the Line), where Annie has no other customers to keep her company.
As the two discuss Bill’s plight and Annie’s excitement about helping him end it, the movie bounces back to watch her manipulate Vince and Alf both in the diner and in the strip club. Stein piles up the femme-fatale indicators, all but hanging a “steer clear” sign around Annie’s neck, but Alf falls for her, calling her “sugarplum” and scolding Vince when he uses less respectful nicknames. Then the men go off to their dingy stakeout, returning us to Bill and his discourse on the literary device called the pathetic fallacy.
Somewhere in here, the script goes crazy with Lewis Carroll allusions, which at least shakes things up. The pastiche and pretentiousness would be forgivable if there were something human underlying it all. But even the film’s own characters eventually acknowledge they’re in an “over-elaborate scheme” concocted by somebody who likes to have all his toys lined up tidily on the shelf. If Stein wants Terminal not to be the last stop on his filmmaking career, he’s going to need to think less about ways to arrange his pretty toys and more about the stories they might tell.
Production companies: LuckyChap Entertainment, Beagle Pug Films
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
Cast: Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, Dexter Fletcher, Max Irons, Mike Myers
Director-screenwriter: Vaughn Stein
Producers: David Barron, Molly Hassell, Arianne Fraser, Margot Robbie
Executive producers: Matthew Jenkins, Tristan Lynch, Shelley Madison
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Richard Bullock
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Johannes Bock, Alex Marquez
Composers: Tony Clarke, Rupert Gregson-Williams
Casting director: Neely Eisenstein