High Heat was directed by Zach Golden (Gigi Does It, The Escape of Prisoner 614), written by James Pedersen (making his debut), and stars Olga Kurylenko (The Princess, White Elephant), Ivan Martin (Measure of Revenge, Loitering with Intent), Dallas Page (Penance Lane, GallowWalkers), Kaitlin Doubleday (Empire, Waiting…), Chris Diamantopoulos (Silicon Valley, Man Vs), and Don Johnson (Miami Vice, Knives Out). It’s about a chef defending her restaurant from a group of mobsters who’ve come to collect a debt.
The Plot: Knowing the limits of one’s idea can be a boon for genre films. For Pedersen, he largely sticks to the necessities to deliver a simple plot with room for plenty of punch, though he does strain the film when reaching for subplots.
French restaurant “Etoile Rouge” is having its opening night, which is mounting the stress on lead chef Ana (Kurylenko) and her staff since the bookings have already been maxed out and customers are clamouring for chats with those in charge, including from co-owner and Ana’s husband Ray (Johnson). High Heat’s overall plot really only exists to add a new location to the action genre’s travelogue, but Golden shows the stress before the evil arrives anyway, keeping anticipation high before anything really happens.
Stress boils over once Mickey (Martin) finds Ray and demands he meet with Dom (Page) regarding a debt that needs settling. Insurance fraud becomes the agreed upon quick payday, which is a huge surprise considering Ray’s position, giving High Heat some unexpected severity. Ana hasn’t been let in on this though, so the restaurant becomes a battleground for her and the mob goons shortly after it closes. That’s all the plot needed to be, but Pedersen oversteps when including a subplot about a married couple and Ana’s backup Mimi (Doubleday) and Tom (Diamantopoulos) that really didn’t need to be tracked, taking time away from the situation that actually matters.
When Golden focuses on the basics, High Heat tells a story which easily could’ve been overcooked with just enough focus to skirt it by, although there are a couple of light burns, it’s edible plot work.
The Characters: Simplicity continues to work for High Heat as it applies to characters, where being likable doesn’t come at a cost to screen time, even though this doesn’t work the same way for the villains.
Ana and Ray are both hiding one big secret from each other, but the excitement over their new business prospect is completely earnest. Ana wants to go as far as she can to set the business on the right track, setting high expectations for her kitchen staff while never pushing too hard. Her past profession is something she wants to forget, though the benefits of her time in the KGB net her with the language and fighting skills she requires to make it through the night.
Any other actress in the role might not have sold both sides as well as Kurylenko, who’s terrific in a demanding role. Ray is mostly in the background for High Heat, but he shares the enthusiasm while he’s present. Obviously, his secret is owing money to the mob, which is less engaging, but Johnson acts his way out of a thin character.
Villainous characters are less inspired but no less entertaining; Mickey being forcibly restrained but always posturing underling of his father’s mob, which he desperately wants to show promise in leading, and Dom the charismatic boss with a low tolerance for failure. Both are rather interchangeable from plenty of other screen gangsters, but the casting of Martin and Page – though straining credulity with a son and father who look the same age – keeps the schmaltz level appropriately high.
Supporting players like Mimi and Tom, as well as some quirky hired guns on the enemy payroll and small cameo roles from comedians, are acceptable but overbearing in the larger view of High Heat. Mimi and Tom are fine as ways to leverage the odds but making stops to develop their marital woes are at best overlong, and at worst are outright unnecessary. The characters are largely one-note, but the heroine plays well against the villains, even when the support butts in too much for its own good.
The Action: Audiences hoping for a kitchen-set nightmare are going to get what they expected. Golden doesn’t create a constant assault on Etoile Rouge, but the fights and deaths are creative enough to generate personality.
Introducing Ana to the problem Ray finds himself in comes easily for the director, who along with stunt coordinator Drew Leary, establishes the chef’s situational awareness and fighting prowess with two men who get into the kitchen to make a mess. Ana doesn’t leap straight into action, instead observing the men and turning off the lights to attack them with dual-wielded pans. This sequence in particular isn’t anything original, but it sets a precedent well, with Dom heading to the restaurant with more henchmen to get the job done.
Before long, men with more than just jerry cans try to take on Ana and take down the eating establishment, which goes about as well as one would expect. Ana is quick to break bones and gather firearms, which last as long as they need to, with the movie wisely switching back to environmental tools as primary weaponry, including several kitchen knives, baking pans, a meat slicer, and a Molotov cocktail for good measure. Don’t forget the celery.
Once Mimi and Tom arrive, High Heat does lose a little of its stakes (steaks?) with a clearly uneven skill level between the two parties. The choreography and gunfights never suffer, as the good guys are more than competent with their weapons, but the tension drops a notch with Dom’s men clearly being outmatched. None of the action disappoints, but the Die Hard influence worked well here to the point where abandoning it for assistance (outside of Ray, who does return) feels like the wrong move.
The Technics: Golden and the team behind the production were able to wring some style out of a short film with a low budget. Not every choice works, but it’s nice to see a filmmaker try to show what they’ve got.
At only 85 minutes including credits, High Heat knows that it’s a B-movie and is fighting an uphill battle for attention spans to last. Pacing is well managed in the edit by Dawson Taylor (Fear Inc., The Old Ways), who keeps the exposition dumps to a minimum and the fights mostly intelligible. It lacks a bit of focus and could’ve had one or two more action sequences, but the film keeps moving with ease.
Jauntiness keeps the movie afloat in between the downtime, as the script frequently goes for quick visual gags like Ana locking a henchman in the freezer when there’s a more experienced fighter in the kitchen than normal, and a jazzy score from Max Di Carlo (Non amarmi, Sophia!) when there’s room for a background element. As is common for comedy, some jokes last a little too long, such as Jackie Long’s minor role as a masseuse/gunman and the previously mentioned family struggle between Mimi and Tom, but it’s a positive ratio between good and bad jokes.
Despite the classy restaurant being the setting for High Heat, the filmmakers never pretend to be providing something more than fast-food filler. It’s got the right ingredients and delivers a slight yet satisfying piece of entertainment.
High Heat is available on VOD and Digital platforms from Saban Films.