If you watched Suicide Squad and wondered what Karen Fukuhara, who played the steely Katana, might be able to do with a meatier role, Stray will leave you still wondering. Director Joe Sill relishes in Fukuhara’s striking bone structure, letting close-ups and shadows hang to revel in her radiance. But the script by him, Alex Theurer, and J.D. Dillard gives her character all the depth of a cafeteria tray.
Stray kicks off with a mysterious death. A woman’s corpse is discovered standing erect and frozen in horror in an abandoned warehouse. At first, Detective Murphy (Christine Woods) thinks she’s been charred into place by a horrible fire. Now, that doesn’t explain why her clothes or hair would be hardened too. But thankfully, a confounded coroner soon explains she wasn’t burned, she was petrified. Carbon dating suggests her corpse is 1000 years old. So how was she caring for her teen daughter Nori (Fukuhara) just yesterday?
Murphy questions the family and is drawn to the orphaned young woman who mourns for her mother. The determined detective has suffered a horrid loss of her own, and the pair bond in their grief while searching for a murderer who can somehow turn human flesh to ash. Meanwhile, Murphy is stunned to discover Nori has powers of her own, ones that spur blossoms to bloom from even the hardest surfaces.
Stray offers a lot of plot, splitting its focus between Nori’s exploration of her family’s past and her own powers, and Murphy’s attempts to crack the case while overcoming the trauma of her tragic backstory. Some of their discoveries are woefully predictable. Some are convoluted. All of them are boring. Somehow, this movie that involves superpowers, a murder mystery, and a hard-nosed detective who suffers no fools is very, very dull. Part of the problem is that the film’s world-building feels haphazard and vague. A big climactic monologue with the mysterious killer will explain a lot, but it’s too little too late. Part of the problem is that the characters are sketched in a lazy manner, where they spend most of their time spouting exposition or grimacing. Nori is defined by loving her mother, having supernatural powers, seeming nice. Murphy at least has the gruff but caring cop cliche to cling to, giving us a stereotype to connect to if nothing else. Also, she gets tattoos a lot, for reasons. Probably. And none of this is helped by a color palette that makes the movie look like it was shot through a mud puddle. Murky and dark does not inherently create drama, just ask Zack Snyder.
This movie is only remarkable in how underwhelming it is. The murder mystery is not presented in a way that we might be able to solve it with Murphy. So, there’s little suspense to be had there. The fantasy mythos is too vague to be enchanting, which makes the climax feel abrupt, clunky, and comical. The action scenes are few, far between, and forgettable. The central emotional arc of two wounded women bonding over their shared pain and fighting together for a path forward is intriguing. But its script is infected by tedious metaphors, like Murphy monologuing about an untreated leak in her home, and getting ugly tattoos presumably so she can feel something. And the building of the relationship between the two takes a backseat to unfurling their backstories. Which means Fukuhara and Woods are fighting a losing battle against Stray’s greatest villain, that putrid script. My advice: Stray away.
Stray is in theaters and On Demand March 1.