Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Sweet Girl’ Quickly Sours

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Movies like Sweet Girl are always a little disappointing. It’s a movie that ticks off many of my boxes while also centering the main revenge plot around the structural inequities of the American Healthcare system. However, for all that it has going for it, it never seems to be able to get very far.

Sweet Girl is a movie front-loaded with two abundantly charismatic leads and a built-in plot point that would usually have me whooping and hollering. But, sadly, Brian Andrew Mendoza, making his directorial debut, doesn’t know how to sustain tension. A shame since Mendoza does show some promise in terms of how he sets up certain scenes.

Any movie that stars Jason Momoa and Isabela Merced as a father-daughter team on the run after hunting down a billionaire pharmaceutical CEO who they blame for killing his wife/her mother should be a slam dunk. Add in a little bit of The Fugitive as Ray (Momoa) and Rachel (Merced) try to outrun the FBI Agent Meeker (Lex Scott Davis), and by all accounts, we should have a winner.

sweet girl
Isabela Merced and Jason Momoa

Instead, Phillip Esiner and Gregg Hurwitz go out of their way to structure the story in such a way so they can set up a preposterous reveal. The reveal is mostly a cheat. But it is so out of left-field that I almost admired it, simply because it was the most exciting thing the movie had done up to that point. Worse was the last thirty minutes after the film; Sweet Girl turns into a fun, bonkers action movie.

It’s only afterward that I realized that Mendoza had been so busy trying to play coy and set up the twist that he had wasted much of the film’s runtime. As a result, so much of Sweet Girl feels like legwork for another movie. Even the fight scenes, which for a film co-produced by the UFC, are shoddily photographed.

Which, to be clear, is not the same as poorly choreographed. Much like Snake Eyes, it is clear that the stunt work and the fights are well-choreographed, and the stunts are all clean and well-executed. Mendoza just doesn’t know how to film them.

Sweet Girl has a fight scene on a train that calls to mind a similar fight scene from Nobody where Bob Odenkirk took on a group of drunk Russian thugs on a bus. Mendoza has Jason Momoa and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as a hitman named Santos fight one on one in a train, and it feels clumsy, hard to follow, and worse, a visual mess. 

But even here, I can hardly blame the cameraman Barry Ackroyd. Later on, in the last fun thirty minutes of Sweet Girl, there is a fight between Merced’s Rachel and Garica Rulfo’s Santos that is the best of the movie. It is everything the other rows in the film are not. It is intense, easy to follow, well shot and staged, and most importantly, fun.

In a way, it’s almost impressive. The filmmakers have made a movie with Momoa and Merced, two actors with an abundance of talent, charm, and charisma, and found a way to make sure none of it comes through. Instead, the script tries to overcomplicate things and make the evil billionaire a pawn in a larger conspiracy.

Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) is your stock evil dilettant evil rich one-percenter. Bartha has a ball playing Keeley. He’s got that smug face where the moment he appears on camera, you know he’s the bad guy. It’s a shame that Mendoza and his writers waste such a punchable face on a low-level bad guy.

sweet girl
Lex Scott Davis

The script can’t be satisfied with a straightforward revenge thriller. No, it has to spend all its time setting up the big climactic reveal and, in doing so, spends much of its runtime spinning its wheels in the mud. Initially, Garcia-Ruflo’s Santos shows up as a forgettable hitman, only to show up in the second half like some sort of half-baked servant of the Nothing. 

Mendoza and the script even have a scene right out of Heat where Ray and Santos sit down in a diner to have a heart-to-heart. Except we know nothing about Santos, and while we do learn some backstory in the scene, it feels like the movie realizing all of a sudden that Santos was supposed to be something other than a one-scene character.

The scene is decent and is one of the better moments of the first half of the movie. Momoa and Garcia-Ruflo find an easy but tension-filled groove with one another. Although they may have to wrap their mouths around Eisner and Hurwitz’s ungainly dialogue, Ackyroyd’s camera does a good job setting the scene. 

It’s in moments like these Mendoza shows promise. The scene is familiar, but to Mendoza’s credit, he doesn’t try and copy it the way we’ve seen it done before. Instead, he tries to frame it in his own unique way, even if a lackluster script hampers him.

The twist borderlines on the farcical, but Sweet Girl has been so uneventful up until this point; it becomes the film’s highlight. Mendoza and Ackroyd do a perfect job of crafting a moment that feels right out of a telenovela. Weirdly, once the film breaks free afterward, Sweet Girl becomes an absorbing if not an utterly ridiculous action movie.

Merced shows herself to be a firecracker of an action star. She doesn’t get to do much, but when she does get to, lets loose. Seeing her flip around a grown man’s body or take a fall out of a second-story window, I’m reminded that this is the same actor who was in both a Transformers and a Dora the Explorer movie. 

sweet girl
Isabela Merced

Merced and Momoa are believable as father and daughter. While the script stalls for much of the movie, the driving force is the relationship between Momoa and Merced. They don’t save the film necessarily, but they do make it tolerable and, at times, even entertaining.

I told my wife about the twist and gave her the time stamp, as well. She watched the scene and then watched the last thirty minutes with rapt delight. So perhaps the key to enjoying Sweet Girl is skipping the first eighty minutes.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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