American workers in the Colombian office of the Belko Corporation are locked inside their hi-tech building and told by a disembodied voice that they have to kill each other to stay alive.
There are two sides to James Gunn. One side contains the family-friendly blockbuster guy, who can write and direct great big crowdpleasers like Guardians Of The Galaxy (both volumes) and (for better or worse) bring Scooby-Doo to the silver screen.
Then there’s the other side — let’s call it the smoking Gunn. The horror nut behind the gore-fuelled likes of the terrifically entertaining Slither, the dark, uncompromising Super and Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake. That’s the Gunn we get here with The Belko Experiment. It’s something of a pet project of Gunn’s, who wrote it several years ago but couldn’t spare the time from guarding the galaxy to direct it, so he remains on writing/producing duties, entrusting the yelling-through-a-megaphone-and-doing-that-little-rectangle-box-thing-with-your-fingers stuff to Wolf Creek’s Greg McLean. It looks like a match made in horror heaven. And, for a while, it is.
It looks like a match made in horror heaven. And, for a while, it is.
Plot-wise, it’s The Hunger Games with an HR department. More overtly, it’s Battle Royale in the boardroom, right down to the exploding heads for non-compliance. The first hour is pretty terrific, introducing us adroitly to quite a large group (there are 80 employees in the building) and establishing the workplace hierarchy. There’s the big boss (Tony Goldwyn); the ambitious underlings; the co-workers caught up in a clandestine affair; the new girl; the engineers who know the place inside out; the mother hens… and on and on. And, because we know most of these people will end the day in possession of the ultimate P45, there’s tension right away. We know that there’s a ticking time bomb about to consume these people. Once it goes off, with heads popping all over the place, the pace never lets up. However, rather than a wicked satire about the lengths to which colleagues will go to screw each other for a goddamn percentage or, indeed, a piece about America’s place in the world (the Colombia setting is fairly pointless; this could have been Anywhere, USA), it becomes a rather heavy-handed fight for survival.
Gunn has always been a wonderful writer — he’s the guy who managed to make us care about a talking tree, after all — but these characters rarely pop off the page. The film’s notional hero, Mike (Gallagher Jr.), is a wet blanket in whom it’s hard to invest. And while the stage is set for grandstanding turns from stalwart character actors like Michael Rooker and John C. McGinley, they’re not given enough to do. The great psycho killer performance the film is crying out for never quite materialises.
There are few surprises here, which may be the biggest surprise of all. The second half, which doesn’t live up to the promise of the first and becomes a bludgeoning race to the finish line, will please some gore fans with its headshots and axes to the face. McLean handles the mayhem well, but it’s a film that is crying out for a little more flair. Save for inventive use of a Sellotape dispenser, it’s also fairly uninspired in its use of workplace weaponry, relying instead on a convenient arsenal of guns to mete out the murder. There’s no doubt which side of James Gunn wins out here, but you end up wishing the guy who made Guardians such a joy had showed up.
A brutal, bloody battle royale that glides along nicely until a disappointing dip in the second half. Still, there are plenty of positive results from this experiment, especially for gore fans.