Since achieving leading man status, Chadwick Boseman’s made a couple of decent and dignified if stolid biopics, and a musical one that ventures from pathos to cruelty and all the way to hilarity.
He’s collected the big paydays for donning the Black Panther suit and African accent a couple of times.
But here’s a neo-noir thriller he never should have made.
“Message from the King” is a sordid LA underworld tale of drugs, conspiracy, porn and pedolophilia. It’s obvious, clunky, trite and utterly generic and beneath the man’s talents, even if it allows him to ditch the burden of “dignity” he’s worn in most of the roles he’s inhabited since he became famous.
He plays Jacob King, a man of mystery lured from his native South Africa to LA thanks to a frantic phone message from his sister. Bianca is beautiful, married and must have moved there with dreams of screen stardom. But her phone call was alarming.
“I have something they want.”
Jacob, with just the clothes on his back and a few hundred dollars, intends to find her.
But everybody from her flirtatious neighbor (Natalie Martinez) to her no nonsense landlady (Dale Dickey) is either cagey about the last time they saw her — “You know Bianca.” “I used to think so.” — or blunt.
“Beat-up and strung out.”
That “I used to think so” is the first worn-out cliche this Oliver Butcher/Stephen Cornwell script serves up. The second is “She left some stuff with me.”
That’s always true in lazy mysteries like this one. The box of stuff is a veritable collection of “clues” from a dozen other missing person thrillers — matchbooks and business cards, a supermarket bag and just enough photos to make our hero flash back to the sister (Sibongile Mlambo) he knew.
The trail leads him from market to morgue, orgiastic coke party to car was and on.
We never have to hear the phrase “He has special skills,” another crutch of such films. That first fight, mere minutes into the movie, tells us this is a man who knows violence. That, and the chainsaw chain he buys at a hardware store. As if he couldn’t score a gun in America, no sweat.
“Whoever you work for,” he shouts in that Wakanda accent, “TELL him, ‘This was a message from ‘The King!'”
Tom Felton of the Potter pictures, Alfred Molina and Luke Evans play predictable ingredients in the mix. Teresa Palmer, looking Jodie Foster-in-“Hotel Artemis”-rough, is the worn out single mom/hooker with the heart to give Jacob a hand.
The direction doesn’t get in the way of the action, but the script gets tangled up in its own two feet, time and again. “How’d he get THAT?” “How’d he get THERE?” “Why are guys with guns scared of the dude with the chain?” Lapse after logical lapse.
The dialogue is mostly of the “This isn’t about money,” “It nearly always is” variety.
Every interruption of a big bad guy begins with “This better be good.”
It never is. America’s film schools and online screenplay courses are letting us down.
Palmer acquits herself with the usual ferocious commitment to veracity. Evans should be hunting around for a better agent at this point.
Boseman carries himself with confidence in every role, but the rat hole this picture twists into must have left even him shaken.
But the very nature of “Message from the King” does something no film he’s starred in can claim. It diminishes him. Let’s hope that “Panther” cash ensures it doesn’t happen again.
MPAA Rating: R for brutal violence, grisly images, strong sexual content/nudity, language throughout and some drug use
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Teresa Palmer, Tom Felton, Luke Evans, Alfred Molina
Running time: 1:42