Jesse V. Johnson (Avengement, The Debt Collector) may well be the best director of action films working today. And his latest film, White Elephant may be Bruce Willis’s (Cosmic Sin, Vendetta) best chance to add another memorable to his list of credits. Or at least one that’s memorable for the right reasons.
Gabriel Tancredi (Michael Rooker, Corrective Measures, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is an enforcer working for Arnold (Bruce Willis). They have Carlos (Vadhir Derbez, The Seventh Day, The Waiter) deal with a rival who won’t negotiate. He handles the matter, but a pair of cops, Vanessa (Olga Kurylenko, Black Widow, Quantum of Solace) and her partner (Michael Rose, 2177: The San Francisco Love Hacker Crimes, A Dark Place) see him making his escape. Arnold gives Gabriel and Carlos forty-eight hours to take care of that problem. And they get half the job done quickly and easily. But finishing it off may be more work than they expected.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Erik Martinez (Beyond the Mat, Chung Cu Ma) and some additional dialogue by Katharine Lee McEwan (Hell Hath No Fury, Solitary) Johnson gets things going with a well-staged shootout. And after a bit of introduction to our leads, he delivers an assault on Vanessa’s house that has the side effect of setting off a power struggle among the local mobs. There’s more action in this film’s first half-hour than in the entire length of most of Willis’ recent films.
Thankfully he doesn’t let the pace up either, because when White Elephant has to depend on its story, it’s a lot less impressive. We’ve seen it all before, Vanessa is ex-military and has PTSD from her time in Afghanistan. Gabriel’s conscience has been bothering him since the death of his wife. Carlos is the young hotshot ready to make his mark. Toss in some dirty cops, dangerous friends and a crooked lawyer who quotes Greek history (John Malkovich, The Survivalist, Shattered) and stir well.
To answer the question I know you all have, Willis is actually fairly decent in White Elephant. He even gets into the action when an attempt on his life takes out his wife (Lauren Buglioli, Transference, Horror Noire) instead. There are moments though where he sounds out of it or bored, although in the scenes at the hospital he may have been trying to portray Arnold’s mental numbness over what had just happened.
Malkovich is good in an extended cameo, even Willis is on screen more than he is. Kurylenko likewise does well as our heroine. Derbez however is fairly bland as her nemesis, though there isn’t a lot for him to work with. It’s Rooker that steals the show as the conflicted enforcer. He does a good job projecting what he’s going through and makes a cliched but rarely believable character arc work. He also gets the film’s best line, “I’m a contract killer, not a contractor”, after his estimate of a building’s sturdiness proves to be way off.
But at the end of the day, people watch Johnson’s movies for the action, not the acting. And while none of the cast is as good as Johnson’s usual star Scott Adkins, stunt coordinator Luke LaFontaine (The Mercenary, The Sand) makes sure the action scenes in White Elephant are crisp and well-staged. It also looks like the bullet hits were done with mostly practical effects which makes for a nice change.
While the relatively low-budget show at times and the script is nothing special, White Elephant is an above-average film for its budget and market. It’s one of the rare action films in its budget range to deliver plenty of solid action scenes. It may also be your last chance to see a good performance from Bruce Willis.