So many skilled and watchable actors have been plugged into poorly made “Taken” rip-offs over the last dozen years or so — including Jennifer Garner, Pierce Brosnan, Zoe Saldaña, Liam Neeson, Liam Neeson, and Liam Neeson — and yet I still couldn’t help but get excited by the idea of casting Allison Janney as a grizzled “old woman” who grabs the nearest shotgun when some military-grade baddies kidnap the little girl who’s living on her property. C.J. Cregg doing Clint Eastwood? If that’s not enough to pump fresh life into action cinema’s hackiest sub-genre then I don’t know what is.
Neither, apparently, does anyone involved in Netflix’s “Lou,” a thriller so bland and threadbare it’s hard to imagine this one-time Paramount production would ever wind up anywhere else.
The premise couldn’t be any simpler, even if the wisps of a plot that screenwriters Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley layer on top of it are impressively absurd: Janney plays Lou, a suicidal crank who lives on a forest-y island off the coast of Seattle with her dog, Jax (presumably named after the former “Vanderpump Rules” character of the same name, even though “Lou” is set during the Reagan administration for reasons that are never made clear). For the last few months, Lou has been renting the trailer behind her house to a widowed mom named Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman), both of whom she’s happy to antagonize at every opportunity — Lou’s weirdly aggressive about collecting rent for someone who’s planning to blow her own brains out with a shotgun as soon as night falls.
In a shocking twist of events, however, Lou is stopped from killing herself 10 minutes into the movie that bears her name. Hannah bursts into the house at just the right moment with an urgent request for help. Good news: Her husband Philip (Logan Marshall-Green) is very much alive! Bad news: He’s kidnapped Vee during the worst rainstorm in decades. Oh, he’s also a former Green Beret, and he’s brought two friends along for the fun. Unfortunately for them, Lou has some relevant experience of her own — a very special set of skills that she honed as a spy for the CIA.
So begins a damp and tedious game of cat-and-mouse that “Underworld: Blood Wars” director Anna Foerster struggles to save from its own nonsense. Some of that nonsense is amusingly ridiculous, at least so far as Philip’s sociopathy is concerned; between his fixation with the band Toto, his penchant for crushing butterflies in his bare hands, and the adorable little bomb he makes out of Vee’s old music box in the first act, you can almost feel a movie with some actual (deranged) personality being suffocated to death under the bargain-bin thriller on screen. And the creepy postcards he leaves behind… don’t even get me started on creepy postcards.
But even in spite of a wild — and wildly unbelievable — second act twist that reframes the relationship between this COVID-friendly story’s three major characters, “Lou” still just feels like someone typed “Allison Janney in ‘Taken’” into Dall·E 2 and then used the images the algorithm spat out for storyboards. Fun as it is to watch a stone-faced Janney grumble about how “the world’s not a playground” and beat some bad guys to death with a coffee pot, Foerster’s movie is frustratingly light on both.
Janney makes a great murderous curmudgeon, but the script’s big reveal strands the actress with a “layered” character who’s never given the chance to transcend the most basic aspects of her archetype. Worse: She only gets to kill like three people! The character she played in “Mom” probably racked up a higher body count! (I haven’t seen that show, but surely there was some homicide sprinkled across those 170 episodes). The majority of “Lou” is wasted on its reluctant heroine nagging Hannah to move faster as they run through the rain or climb up muddy embankments while Philip waits for them in a cave somewhere.
A movie about Allison Janney going full “Commando” on a bunch of hapless redshirts sounds absolutely fantastic — at its best, “Lou” merely proves that it would be.
“Lou” starts streaming on Netflix Friday, September 23.
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