Paradise City was directed by Chuck Russell (Eraser, Junglee), written by Russell, Edward Drake (Cosmic Sin, Gasoline Alley), and Corey Large (Detective Knight: Rogue, Apex), and stars Blake Jenner (Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some!), Praya Lundberg (Realms, Bangkok Naruemit), John Travolta (In a Valley of Violence, Urban Cowboy), Bruce Willis (Death Wish, Wrong Place), Stephen Dorff (Old Henry, True Detective), and Branscombe Richmond (Hard to Kill, City of Gold). It’s about the son of a bounty hunter teaming up with some of his old associates to wreak vengeance on the people who killed his father.
The Plot: From the outset, Paradise City sounds painfully generic. While it may be generic, it’s far from painful, as the writing trio behind the movie set up their web of connections decently enough, even though their alleged surprises fail at doing that, but the final product gets the job done.
Bounty hunter Ian Swann (Willis) had recently got himself into a standoff while collecting a mark, which resulted in him being gunned down on one of the many beaches of Maui. While also hunting for checks, Robbie (Dorff) is met by Ian’s son, Ryan (Jenner), who he tells about a big contract his father was tracking, named Billford, who may’ve been the reason Ian was killed. Paradise City has to work through a bit more exposition than one would expect, and the script throws a lot of names around which can be hard to track, but the movie does manage to clean itself up as it goes along.
Their investigation brings them to politician Kane’s (Richmond) party that’s being hosted by Buck (Travolta), where they find out that Billford is dead at the cost of Robbie’s capture. Suspecting that Buck had something to do with both of these things, Ryan teams with cop Savannah (Lundberg), and eventually his father (who most will guess isn’t dead) to bring down Buck by infiltrating his forces before he can execute his surely malevolent plans in Maui’s “Paradise City”. It’s a lot of information to swallow with definitions surrounding each event kept to the minimum. Russell, Drake, and Large smooth things out in due time, but it’s regrettable that it had to be ironed out in the first place.
The Characters: Again, the movie doesn’t do much to assuage the audience beyond the basics, offering acceptable renditions of archetypes with a few minor displays of real character in a select few moments.
Both Swanns are merely average reruns of families in action/crime movies. Ryan is out of his depth amongst the seedier characters of Paradise City, as he’s a bounty hunter like his father, but only uses non-lethal force. Other than that, he’s a bit of a disappointing blank, as he goes through the detective motions with occasional sparks of wit when presented with opposition. During the few scenes Ian is in before the last 20 minutes, he’s shown as a typically wisecracking antihero who doesn’t back down in a fight, except to call his son and tell him he loves him.
Savannah and Robbie are fine enough, with the former being the generic good cop within a swathe of corrupt ones, opting to help maintain some form of law and order on the island, even if she goes behind the law from time to time. She’s got a few moments of ingenuity but is another “blah” rendering of a traditional role. Robbie is the requisite ex-partner to Ian, who eventually fell out of contact to do his own thing, spending more time racking up a bar tab than doing work, though he’s still capable of doing his job.
Buck is an above-average bad guy; he’s in love with his power over the island and wants more of it. His goal is to dig further into the financial potential of Maui by introducing more “trade ports” that are really just ways to funnel drugs into the islands and get richer. He’s theatrical and loves it, monologuing to Ian and others to show off said influence, and even goes farther by dropping an opposer into a volcano. Now that’s the showmanship Paradise City could’ve used more of.
The Crime: Those expecting Paradise City to be an out-and-out action movie will be disappointed, as Russell focuses more on the schemes and procedural mechanics that drive the plot forward, which continues the streak of the movie’s elements being merely average.
Part of Paradise City hinges on the supposed death of Ian, which is played out in the form of a pretty decent action setpiece. While he was hauling a captive away for cash, he was ran off the road and forced to make a last stand against armed men; obviously, he takes a round and is presumed dead, which invites Ryan and Savannah to follow up. Their investigation is thoroughly average, as they go to the crime scene, find Ian’s phone, on which he recorded the gunfight, and use it to track his killers. It’s all rather unremarkable, except for a detour to visit some locals which doesn’t add much to the feature.
On the other end is Buck, whose dealings aren’t much livelier. He’s backing potential senator Kane to get a slice of the new infrastructure that would be built under his tenure, allowing him to monopolize the real estate of Maui, as well as introduce narcotics into the communities. It’s a sinister plan, but nothing original. While it may seem like Buck’s infatuation with himself could be a detriment, Paradise City makes sure to deny this by capturing Robbie and using him as a pawn in his scheme, which isn’t special, but it’s different enough.
Russell does make the push to turn Paradise City’s last act into one about action, but the leadup to it is all perfunctory crime movie sequencing, arranging the main parties and adding in some support on both ends, all to middling results.
The Technics: With an experienced helmer like Russell and a ripe setting like Maui, Paradise City is more of a feast for the eyes than most pictures involving either of the big names have been in for the past six or so years, and the rest of the movie is well done too.
Raw production aspects are generally quite good, with the shot-on-location feel of the movie coming across as a net positive, as the local sights and sounds add flavour to a movie in need of it. Austin F. Schmidt’s (Code Name Banshee, About Scout) camerawork, while nothing particularly special, stays consistent in its showcase of all that Paradise City has to offer, from its action (the most notable setpiece being one in a hotel that results in the young Swann taking a dive from the tenth story) to every shot in between.
When the action takes place, the choreography of the gunfights and melees is equally vanilla, but Russell does have Cole S. McKay (Insidious: The Last Key, Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country), a veteran stunt coordinator who stages the dives, ducks, dodges, and drops with aplomb. Most of what happens in these sequences are practically done too, with a handful of explosions and falls that add flair to a kind of picture that’s largely been relegated to CGI everything. This doesn’t make up for the time it takes to get there, which fluctuates in entertainment value as the script sometimes meanders even during a short runtime of 83 minutes sans credits, but it’s got texture.
Far from what it could’ve been but just as distant from the flop many might’ve expected with latter-day Willis, Paradise City is just an acceptable way to pass the time. Nothing much sets it apart, the cast does fine (even Willis, who seems more engaged despite his occasionally obvious illness), and the crime elements are okay. It’s easier to watch than the Hawaiian Trigger Fish’s native name (humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa) is to say.
Paradise City is currently available on Digital and VOD platforms. Lionsgate will release it on Blu-ray and DVD on December 20th. And if you’re still searching for cinematic paradise, FilmTagger can suggest a few titles.