Ray Cooper is your typical blue-collar family man who also happens to be played by Jason Momoa. His peaceful life is shattered by his beloved wife’s cancer diagnosis. Hope for life-saving treatment is scuppered when a much-needed generic version of her treatment is pulled from the market by a money-hungry big pharma CEO. He soon swears revenge, and he even calls into CNN to tell the slimy businessman responsible for the price-hike that if his wife dies, ‘I will hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands.’ But his hunt for bloody vengeance reveals a deeper conspiracy that he and his teenage daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced) may struggle to escape.
It seems that every actor is looking for their own John Wick these days. The franchise era of Hollywood may have dramatically changed our understanding of stardom but this rush to replicate the ultra-violent and hyper-stylized thrills of Keanu’s new star vehicle feels like a throwback to the ’80s. It’s no wonder that Jason Momoa wants in on the act. He’s practically made for this kind of cinema, thanks to its casual charisma, sharp intensity, and pure physical prowess. It’s not so clear, however, what he saw in Sweet Girl that had him ready to sign on as both a star and producer.
The latest nondescript Netflix action movie, hot off the heels of the likes of 6 Underground and whatever the hell Marky Mark is up to, has a fun hook, at the very least. What better big baddie to take on than the soulless capitalistic greed of big pharma? The film has no interest in pretending that there are some deeper shades of morality to this nemesis either, which is for the best. The American healthcare system is evil and deserves to be kicked in the groin repeatedly (Justin Bartha lightly channels his inner Martin Shkreli as the company’s smarmy chief executive.) Momoa’s brutal beatdowns are undeniably satisfying as symbolic acts turned literal, and the violence itself is often grizzly in its realism. One scene involving the prolonged suffocation of a man with a plastic bag proved especially effective. The problem is that, once the bigger plot gets moving, the political intrigue of this set-up is quickly abandoned in favor of something much more conventional.
The film at least spares us the delusion of believing that Ray is your run-of-the-mill average Joe on a mission. He’s an actor so instantly intimidating that you never for a second buy the idea that he was ever anything less than a ruthless killing machine. No backstory is given and, beyond some token scenes of him training at what looks like a gym for café fighters, he’s not much of a character. Momoa knows how to do this kind of story in his sleep and he’s given little to do when his fists are down. The bond between him and Rachel (Merced is appropriately feisty yet brittle, and more than holds her own against Momoa), the sweet girl of the title, has moments of real emotion. When she expresses her youthful panic over watching her father become a killer, it’s a welcome return to reality for a film that’s quickly leaving orbit. These moments of solace are few and far between, sadly, and in a film that’s 110 minutes long, it quickly outstays its welcome. There’s a reason that Aquaman is such a perfect fit for Momoa’s brand of muscled softy heroism, and none of that gets to shine through in Sweet Girl.
As the plot becomes increasingly ludicrous, you can’t help but wish that the action would loosen up too. The narrative starts out so straight-faced and has the kind of physicality to match — no balletic fight choreography, no slow-motion or storms of bullets. When Momoa lands a punch, you feel it. As things get sillier, everyone remains so stridently serious (made all the more portentous by the score, which feels like it was intended for something more Oscar-baity), and this becomes particularly stupid once the third act kicks in. The movie drops a twist so jaw-droppingly daft that I almost admired it until I thought about it for longer than twelve seconds. It definitely seemed like a fun surprise out of context, but the narrative is immediately hindered by it and doesn’t become more enjoyable or impactful as a result. One of the writers of this script is Gregg Hurwitz, who wrote The Book of Henry. That feels like some crucial context.
Sweet Girl overall feels like a deliberate throwback to the kind of meat and potatoes B-movie action thriller that we would have expected every year or so with Arnold Schwarzenegger (or his non-union equivalent) in the lead role. I’m sure there’s still an audience for that kind of flick, but it feels so out-of-place in a sea of much smarter and more self-aware offerings that have the nerve to stick to their thematic ambition. Mostly, Sweet Girl doesn’t seem to know who it’s for or what it wants to say, even though its basic set-up offers a clear and appealing message. Netflix probably has about a dozen more of this exact sort of movie waiting in the wings, and they’ll all be suitable for a half-viewed night of TV with your dad, but at a time when we’re bombarded with at-home entertainment options, perhaps wait for something more memorable.
Also, the title is just awful.
Sweet Girl premieres on Netflix this Friday.
Header Image Source: Netflix