With an angel face, a wicked smile, and explosive charisma, Margot Robbie was born to play a sultry and sinister femme fatale. Sadly, she did so in Terminal, a neo-noir that is painfully derivative and not nearly as clever as it thinks.
The feature film debut of writer/director Vaughn Stein, Terminal follows aspiring assassin Annie (Robbie) as she promises mysterious crime boss Mr. Franklyn that she’ll kill off the competition to become his go-to hitman. From there, she spins from seedy hotel rooms to a dilapidated diner and swinging strip club, each soaked in violent splashes of red, teal, yellow, and green light. Nearly every frame is thrillingly alive with color and seductive in its style, which dresses mean men in lean suits, and Robbie in an array of fetish looks, from sweetly flirty waitress to Betty Page bad girl and naughty nurse. But the script is as uninspired as Stein’s reliance on male fantasies.
Stein clearly aspires to the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, writing a tale that has garrulous anti-heroes bantering about sex, death, and movies in lengthy scenes punctuated by violence. But Stein lacks the snap of Tarantino dialogue, ham-fistedly wedging in references to Alice in Wonderland, and leaning hard on Robbie’s allure to sell underwhelming lines like, “I like your jaw. It’s manly. I want to keep you.” Worse still, he lacks the surprise of Ritchie’s wild narratives that are stuffed to the gills with curious characters. Instead, Stein keeps things lean with only a handful of characters, which makes the mystery of Mister Franklyn’s identity far from mysterious. But that’s not the only supposed shock that Terminal fails to deliver. Stein’s script telegraphs twists so plainly it’s painful. His idea of clever is clear in the film’s title. Terminal ties to the train station setting central to the plot, and the film’s doomed figures who play at death on the daily. If that level of wit tickles you, then good news: you are Stein’s audience.
Despite the gorgeous lighting and the keen eye for making Robbie every kind of lusty dream girl, Terminal is woefully uncinematic. Despite being a movie about killers, there are no shootouts, and the stiff standoffs thirst for suspense. It’s mostly a movie where bad people talk to each other in not-so-thinly veiled threats, often while sitting in a diner or standing on a train platform. Terminal feels like a play that was crudely converted for the screen. Its sets are disconnected, with little sense of geography and proximity, so each sequence feels like it’s in a fishbowl instead of a wider world. Rather than intimate, it feels undercooked. Then, Stein barrels into a third act that is treacherously laborious and pitches the whole film into a different genre altogether, and not one that does any better by Robbie or the audience.
Terminal is a deeply odd movie. It feels like that first screenplay everyone wrote in college, which giddily toys with violence and sex while clinging desperately onto homage to stronger storytellers. It weaves in talk of literature to sound smart, and centers on a sexy dame as a naked attempt to stay titillating. Then Mike Meyers pops up (his first film appearance since Inglorious Basterds) as a plucky train station supervisor, who gambols and sputters like a living cartoon. He’s out of place, I suppose. But it’s hard to get a sense of the place when Stein fails to world build much beyond the diner’s doors. So we get Robbie bringing mega-watt charm and relentless sex appeal. We get Max Irons as a dashing but dastardly killer, Dexter Fletcher as his gruff and growling partner, and Simon Pegg as a pretentious traveler pondering death and metaphor. Sometimes Stein achieves interesting, with performances that sparkle in spite of his static staging, unimaginative dialogue, and eye-roll worthy plot. But Terminal is ultimately deadly disappointing.