83 years ago, an apparently overly self-assured smartguy tried to play “gotcha” with John Ford by asking him why, in Stagecoach’s climactic chase scene, the Native Americans didn’t shoot at the horses instead of the carriage. “Because,” he replied, “that would have been the end of the movie.” A snappy answer to a foolish question, delivered as only someone of Ford’s stature could. If a journalist posed any variant of this question to writer/director George Gallo regarding his new movie, Vanquish, he might give a variant of that answer, the trouble being that he isn’t Ford and his movie isn’t Stagecoach. Nor is it John Wick, the movie it takes after most, and for that matter it isn’t much of anything else, either.
Imagine spending an hour and a half or so watching a film that, the minute the credits roll, dissolves from the mind like cotton candy in hot water. That’s Vanquish. Nothing that happens throughout its narrative happens for any good reason, other than the plot dictates it must for the sake of limping to the next scene. Gallo, co-writing with Sam Bartlett, can’t conjure backstory for his characters or the film’s central conflict. Frankly, they scarcely manage to create characters at all, and the conflict feels perfunctory, scraped together from dozens of superior movies about hitmen, cops and hired guns coming out of, or being kept from, retirement: Polar, The Man From Nowhere, No Way Out, Unforgiven.
It’s by either design or unhappy accident that Gallo’s star, Morgan Freeman, figures into the last of these as an erstwhile tough guy spurred back into action. In Vanquish he plays Damon, a wheelchair-using ex-policeman with obviously dirty hands: The guy lives in an enormous estate, the kind a man can’t buy on a lawman’s salary unless he snaps the law in two. That’s the past, of course, which Gallo has zero interest in. In the present, Damon gives his corrupt former partners the ol’ double cross by collecting debts from a handful of lowlifes strewn all over the city, again for reasons Gallo doesn’t appear to care about. The catch is that Damon’s disabled, a wrinkle ironed out when he calls on his caretaker Victoria (Ruby Rose), once upon a time a courier for the Russian mob, to grab the cash for him.
A small ask, except for one problem: She doesn’t want to. She’s done with that life. So Damon kidnaps Victoria’s daughter Lily (Juju Journey Brener) from right under her nose. One moment they’re talking, and Lily is there. The next, Lily is gone, as if by cheap Las Vegas stage magic, and Victoria is left with no choice other than to race around on a motorcycle with a camera hooked up to her chest so Damon can keep tabs on her as she carries out her errands. Sure. Why not? The Rear Window riff feels a tad stale but at least adds something to the film’s formula, because there’s naught else to freshen it up. Not in the muddy photography and uncoordinated camerawork, not in the choreography, not in the story department and not even in the performances.
Rose and Freeman at least try. This is neither Freeman’s first heel turn (see, for example, Wanted) nor Rose’s first stint as action star (see The CW’s Batwoman, or XXX: Return of Xander Cage, or, yes, John Wick: Chapter 2), and so neither of them has anything to prove by playing antiheroes or kicking butt. Shamefully, they don’t have anything to work with, either. Were Vanquish a first draft film, a production that needed one or two more passes over the script to get it into fighting shape, it’d be an improvement. But it’s an outline film, reading like a checklist of Gallo’s wants and wishes and ideas untethered by the structure of a proper screenplay: It’s his id left to abandon, which theoretically sounds awesome except that in execution the film is so sluggish as to be aggravating.
Nothing’s worse than the vagueness, though. It’s hard to tell what to be mad at, bored with, or offended by in Vanquish explicitly because it’s so amorphous. We never come to an understanding of Victoria, Damon, or even his crooked associates, other than a basic logline. There’s no meat connecting each detail together to give them cogency, to say nothing of meaning—though between the two, the film is in desperate need of clarity more than a message. Who cares about subtext when the text itself is a shambles?
Director: George Gallo
Writers: George Gallo, Sam Bartlett
Starring: Ruby Rose, Morgan Freeman, Patrick Muldoon, Nick Vallelonga
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.