Kate Beckinsale fights henchmen in "Jolt".

Great Star Turn, Terrible Movie — “Jolt”

In “Jolt”, Kate Beckinsale plays a woman with intermittent explosive disorder. According to the movie, this gives her superhuman strength and martial arts talent that makes her a shoe-in for the CIA. After all, what intelligence agency wouldn’t want someone they can’t control? When we find Lindy, she’s in between jobs as a bouncer.

Lindy controls her violent outbursts through a vest that delivers jolts of electricity. Anytime she feels an impulse coming on, she presses a button, receives a jolt, and calms down. After her boyfriend is murdered, she sets off on a path of vengeance to find the killer.

This is a pretty bad take on intermittent explosive disorder, but sometimes we overlook a film’s problematic core when it’s just one of a host of glaring issues. It becomes a “forest for the trees” situation as you watch.

“Jolt” is like when you nail your elbow on a door but you’re distracted by that really uncomfortable numbing sensation by slamming your shin into a table, causing you to step on a Lego and rush upstairs for ice so fast you cram your head into a low-hanging pipe. At that point, picking the worst problem is less about what to do and more about taking a moment to appreciate just how much of a mess can be created at this one focal point in the universe.

The first blaring klaxon is that we’re introduced to Beckinsale’s Lindy by way of a needless prologue. It’s narrated by someone we won’t see or hear from again for an hour-and-a-half – but don’t worry, it won’t even matter then. I’m all for a good narrator, but not one who dominates the first few minutes and then completely disappears. What’s more, “Jolt” is determined to keep Lindy mysterious and ill-defined. This could be a strength, but it directly undermines a prologue meant to ground us with the character.

Each new scene in “Jolt” introduces a new failure on the movie’s part. Despite a few brief flashes of violence Lindy imagines, there isn’t a real action scene in this action movie until 40 minutes in. It’s also an action comedy, which the police officers pursuing Lindy will remind you of as often as they can. Bobby Cannavale and Laverne Cox play such incompetent cops that they feel lifted out of “Reno 911”, “Police Academy”, or real life. Cannavale’s entire motive for being convinced Lindy’s innocent is that he wants to sleep with her and misreads the kind of person she is. Cox’s entire motive for Lindy’s guilt is that Cannavale’s reasoning for believing she’s innocent is absolute nonsense. I mean, she’s right even if her conclusion is wrong, and there’s a lot you could do with this, but there’s no consequence attached to any of it. It’s just an excuse for them to bicker in some of the worst writing that’s ever been put to screen. Every moment they’re on-screen plays like a farce, when nothing else in the movie does.

Look, don’t get me wrong. When you go in for a Kate Beckinsale actioner, you’re expecting a competent, mid-budget throwback determined to carry the torch of 90s gothic action movies. You’re not expecting hundreds of millions in visual effects or a who’s who of action stars. You’re looking to see heroes and villains toeing the line of BDSM fashion while hotly debating vampire bylaws, taking occasional breaks to see which werewolf can cleave a distinguished English actor’s jaw the furthest. I like to think this is how golf started.

They’re an acquired taste. You’re not looking for “Avengers”, you’re looking for costume design, dry wit, efficient pacing, enough extraneous lore to fill a Ken Burns miniseries, and quick bursts of splattery violence.

Beckinsale can sell an action scene. This ranges from the superhero-esque choreography of the “Underworld” franchise to the martial arts of the “Total Recall” reboot and the more practical, realistic fights in films like “Vacancy” and “Whiteout”. Whatever combination of Beckinsale and stunt actors has played these roles has conveyed extremely solid action scenes again and again.

All this is getting round to stressing that “Jolt” utterly fails her. Beckinsale is there, she’s doing the work, she’s delivering the dry wit, she’s hauling the entire film forward clenched between her teeth in as fun a way as someone can, but outside of her, this is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

What’s frustrating is that “Jolt” can’t settle on what the hell it is. Beckinsale’s scenes with Jai Courtney are a romance where she feels seen for the first time. Her scenes with the designer of her electroshock vest, Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Munchin, are some of the film’s best and are full of acerbic wit. Her scenes with the detectives are straight-up farce and it’s often hard to tell how intentional this is or isn’t. I mean, the baby-tossing scene obviously is, but often the film communicates this too late and it doesn’t fit at all into the rest of the world “Jolt” is painting.

What is that world? It’s the dark, bleak, gothic, “It can’t rain all the time” universe you expect out of a Beckinsale action movie, complete with an old, scenery-chewing English villain so bad he’d be twirling his mustache if he hadn’t, you know, like outlawed mustaches altogether so he could eat people’s faces more easily. Not literally, that’s not an aspect of the plot, but if it had been I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I would have been pleasantly surprised because at least the film would have been clearer about what it was trying to be.

Worst of all, the film’s central metaphor works on Lindy finally “uncaging” herself from her electroshock vest and learning that her anger is something she can use to solve a problem. It is a power and something she should have allowed herself much earlier. That can be an amazing metaphor for women taking hold of their anger to make change. It’s a really shitty metaphor for people dealing with mental health issues such as the intermittent explosive disorder the film builds itself around. It’s especially shitty given that we’re shown numerous flashbacks where Lindy doesn’t control her anger and maims and kills innocent people as a result.

Those flashbacks were fine in the moment because they’re comedic and it’s communicated they’re not meant to be taken at face value…except we’re then asked to hold those kinds of actions accountable in order to cheer for Lindy and see her freed from a form of impulse control in a way we’re expected to take at face value. Lindy’s reckless cruelty is meant to be a dark humor we don’t take seriously – yet when the film asks us to take the power of her anger more seriously, we also have to take the casual murder of innocents, baby hurling, and blowing up residences where others live more seriously.

Is it a farce making fun of action movies and cliché dialogue? In the cop scenes, yeah. Is it trying to be a successful action movie? In assault-the-tower, torture, and fight scenes, yeah. Is it a witty comedy? When Beckinsale and Tucci go at it, yeah.

Half the problem is that it never fully gets there. A lot of the farce doesn’t play and the physical comedy is terribly blocked out. The chase scenes are awful and serious action is so delayed it becomes compartmentalized from the rest of the film. Beckinsale and Tucci deliver on the verve of witty comedic scenes in order to make up for where the dialogue fails them.

The other half of the problem is that “Jolt” doesn’t commit fully enough to any single aspect. I love films that cram together divergent genres. Last week’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” effortlessly glided between genres, influences, and styles of art. Or if you don’t sell every genre you’re going for, you can go all in on at least one of them. That makes an anchor for the others to work off of – look at “Shadow in the Cloud” from earlier this year.

“Jolt” just doesn’t have follow-through on any of these aspects. Every time we shift genre, half the cast feels completely out of place. Beckinsale visits the physical comedy farce despite never existing in it. Cannavale and Cox visit the action despite never existing in it. No one burrows into one of these genres deeply enough for it to make those shifts feel consequential, and no one glides between the genres in the way needed to guide viewers through those shifts. That’s not a criticism of the actors – that’s the fault of direction and – here at least – the screenwriting.

Above all, I’m shocked that this is something Tanya Wexler directed. Her film “Buffaloed” came out last year, and it is both a successful comedy and a biting social commentary. The performances are all phenomenal, led by Zoey Deutch and Judy Greer. Hell, the woman even made Jai Courtney interesting. Wexler was able to glide everyone and everything across genre and commentary in a way that is often sublime.

Her prior film “Hysteria” is a comedy about the invention of the vibrator that’s considered one of the more unique and creative comedies of the 2010s. Wexler was on something of a roll, until now.

Above all, I blame this on Scott Wascha’s screenplay. Maybe this was intended as a more straight-up actioner. Maybe it was supposed to be a “Hudson Hawk” style send-up. Something, somewhere along the way got unbelievably muddled and lost.

None of this torpedoes my faith in Wexler. Her talent for witty slam cuts of flashbacks and imagined violence are one of the few comedic aspects of “Jolt” that works. The art design is inspired in moments. She has nothing to prove, and every director has a bad movie in them.

Tucci does what he can in limited screen time. Cannavale and Cox just don’t seem to be in the same film as anyone else, and that’s not their fault. Courtney’s already the internet’s punching bag for his performances and whether deserved or not, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of point in trying to sink the Titanic even deeper.

As for Beckinsale, it’s a mark of success that it’s taken this long in her career for an action star like her to deliver a truly bad movie. That’s not a period of competency that Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone can claim.

Hell, Bruce Willis came out with three movies this past week that wish they had the scores of “Jolt”. You have to add the IMDB scores of “Cosmic Sin” and “Out of Death” together (5.6) to match that of “Jolt” (5.5). His standout is “Midnight in the Switchgrass” at 4.3. As a rule, I hate IMDB scores, but you get the idea.

Beckinsale is by far this film’s strength and she combines sheer charisma as an action hero with timing that can make a bad line of dialogue feel intentional and weighted. It’s rare that you can watch a movie you think is a failure and come out thinking more highly of the star who at least dragged it halfway out of the well.

Beckinsale elevates this film from completely unwatchable to a bad film that has its moments. That doesn’t sound like praise, but believe me it is. It’s almost worth watching to see someone do that, but at the end of the day the key word there is almost and that’s the strongest possible angle of endorsement I can give “Jolt”.

You can watch “Jolt” on Amazon.

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