Ron Perlman’s performance in Antoine Bardou-Jacquet’s Moonwalkers is the film’s best recommendation. It is also the only recommendation, for the most part, because for all of the great violence on display, there’s not a whole lot hanging the production together. Screenwriter Dean Craig’s script is the rubber and Perlman is the glue. Nothing sticks here save for his grimacing dramatics. He might be a man born to act through prosthetics, but left to his own devices without being molested through hours of makeup application, he’s a hefty actor (if you’ve seen Sons of Anarchy, you already know that). Few thesps can utter a good, solid “fuck” with the same weight as Perlman. He’s a powerhouse.
As one of two casting centerpieces in Moonwalkers, he’s also totally invaluable. Perlman appears here opposite Rupert Grint, the only principal veteran of Harry Potter fame who hasn’t managed to get his career off the ground post-Deathly Hallows; Grint, when in the frame with Perlman, is hopelessly outclassed next to Perlman’s hulking form and rumbling baritone, but he’s mostly underserved by Moonwalker’s writing. Perlman has more of a character to work with: He’s Kidman, a CIA button man suffering from major PTSD after a stint in Vietnam. Kidman has been tapped by the U.S. government to secure the services of Stanley Kubrick himself to help Uncle Sam fake the moon landing and save face in the space race.
Moonwalkers is the kind of movie that climbs in the sandbox of Actual History™ just to play with Fake History™. Grint comes into play as Jonny, a rock band manager who seems doomed to make a mess of his career, plus his life, as well as Kidman’s plot to win the Cold War through disingenuous American can-do; by coincidence, Kidman mistakes him for an industry agent with connections to Kubrick, and so Jonny has his pal Leon (Robert Sheehan) pose as the legendary director for fun and profit. Trouble is, Jonny is in deep shit with a brutal local iron monger (played not by Jeff Bridges, but by the wonderful, underused James Cosmo), whose goons steal the cash Kidman initially fronts Jonny to stage mocked-up lunar romping.
And so bloody antics ensue. Moonwalkers is basically a Guy Ritchie movie if Guy Ritchie decided to homage Kubrick. Neither Bardou-Jacquet nor Martin pays much tribute to Kubrick’s massive, medium-shaping influence, really, though the film does feature a handful of scenes where characters jaw about his oeuvre without ever really saying much about it. (More notable are performances from the supporting cast, particularly Jay Benedict, who uses Dr. Strangelove as the basis for his portrayal of Kidman’s unhinged superior.) But asking Moonwalkers to offer an ode to Kubrick would be asking too much. This isn’t a navel-gazing, meta-textual retrospective on Kubrick’s life and work. Rather, it’s a gangster flick-cum-buddy comedy that happens to have a soft spot for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It just needs to be that. Half the time, the film gets there. The other half, not so much.
As a grisly, street-level action movie, Moonwalkers works. Bardou-Jacquet has a comic sensibility that’s black as pitch, so he treats slow-motion sequences of Perlman cornering goons and knocking their teeth out as punchlines. Eventually, the film graduates from impromptu dentistry to exploding noggins—all in good fun, of course. What doesn’t land is the “buddy” component of the formula here. The unlikely bond that develops between Kidman and Jonny is a hard-enough sell to begin with, but Moonwalkers does as little legwork as possible to pitch it. Kidman starts out wanting to kill Jonny, and nothing that happens to them up to the end turns the necessary knobs for their friendship to feel organic. We come dangerously close to hoping Kidman will knock the whiny Jonny off after all.
A ballsier version of this movie would conclude with Hellboy icing Ron Weasly. Moonwalkers is just content to give them a contrived team-up. Frankly, that doesn’t sound terrible either, but the film and its genre trappings are both so muddled that neither happens. We’re left with the outline of a good old-fashioned caper, and the impression of a buddy picture, but Moonwalkers doesn’t satisfyingly live up to one or the other. Look on the bright side, though: At least we get prime Perlman.
Director: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet
Writer: Dean Martin
Starring: Ron Perlman, Rupert Grint, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Audenaert, Eric Lampaert, Jay Benedict
Release Date: January 15, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.