Less could have been so much more in Vaughn Stein’s frequently overwrought noir oddity Terminal. The film has a strong cast and striking neon aesthetic but squanders each by stretching them to beyond watchable limitations. At its best, Terminal sparkles with intrigue. At worst, it is a vaguely tedious Guy Ritchie inspired Blade Runner knock off.
Whereas the film’s title suggests a point of ending, Terminal itself is more of a purgatorial entity. Ostensibly, this is the story of Annie, (Margot Robbie, who also produces) a hit-woman who plots to wipe out her criminal rivals in a bid to win the custom of big bad Mr Franklin – a distorted voice at the end of a phone line.
In reality, it is a grossly drawn out character study, undertaken in some anonymous underworld in which people don’t actually have any. Annie is a watery imitation of Robbie’s blonde psychopathic bombshell Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, whilst her foes – Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons) – are bickering Pulp Fiction extras. Bizarrely, there’s also room for a make-up heavy Mike Myers to make his feature return after a seven year hiatus.
Occupying much of the runtime is a ‘subplot’ involving a depressed English teacher (Bill – Simon Pegg) whose late-night attempt at suicide is thwarted by railway timetables. With the next train not due till 4.04am, Bill winds up in a cafe called The End of the Line – subtlety is not yet Stein’s forte – in which Annie happens to work. In an endless series of exchanges, the pair chatter exhaustingly on the essence of mortality. ‘I’m dying,’ he says, ‘but you don’t know how or why.’ Her reply? ‘I have an unquenchable blood lust for darkness and depravity’.
Contrary to the excellence of Robbie’s cockneyed central performance, Annie is a deeply uninteresting character; this being a fact that is allegorical to the fault of the film as a whole. She’s a firework that never goes off. There’s fizz in abundance but little behind the dramatics. Her motivations being both confusing and contrived, Stein’s succession of final act twists feel unearned, ranging from the predictable to the down right daft. Feelings of frustration by the film’s close likely derive from the plaguing sense that it really could have been something. It occasionally is.
There are, for instance, a handful of splendid exchanges between Robbie and a doe-eyed Irons, not to mention some fun sketches from Myers. Amid the more risible dialogue is the odd corker and even weaker lines can be elevated by the switched on performances. Furthermore, behind the scenes inventiveness allows for a smart use of the film’s limited budget. The action largely unfolds within the confines of a precinct station, crafted for production on a soundstage, which transforms into a theatrical church as needed. It’s a theatrical effect that actually works in the film’s favour. Or, rather, would do were it not so lavishly decorated.
From start to finish, Terminal looks like a warehoused Tracey Emin exhibition and sounds – courtesy of Anthony Clarke and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score – like an iMovie soundscape sample. Harry Potter’s Matthew Lewis makes sporadic cameos throughout – it’s not his finest hour – whilst an abundance of Lewis Carrol and Shakespeare references tires quickly. Frankly, there’s way too much going on and next to nothing actually happening. The 4.04 cannot come soon enough.