Movie Review: Hostage thriller lacks the tension it takes to get “A Clear Shot”

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As a lifelong Mario Van Peebles fan, let me take a little license as I take issue with his turn as the star of the hostage thriller, “A Clear Shot.”

There’s a difference between acting the line “I’m getting too OLD for this s—,” and letting us see it, first frame to last.

MVP plays Det. Gomez, a burned-out, flask-sipping and under-emoting hostage negotiator tasked with freeing 40 civilians from a Sacramento electronics store after four wound-up Vietnamese teens take it over.

And while it’s no stretch to say Van Peebles the actor/director could have gotten a more suspenseful, more exciting thriller out of this than the director of “Janitors,” Nick Leisure, that’s no excuse for not bringing your A-game to every scene after you’ve been cast.

He gives us flashes of that in the third act. But this picture mopes along on mild-mannered turf war debates, not-that-tense standoffs with the SWAT guys, the ones looking for “A Clear Shot,” and flirting (over that flask) with one of the uniforms (Jessica Meza) on the scene.

Eighty-seven minutes, gunplay and life-and-death consequences, and this feels like a perfunctory drag — a Movie of the Week from back when TV made those.

A jokey opening sets us up for a “Dog Day Afternoon” take on the biggest hostage stand-off in U.S. history. Store managers (including Mandela Van Peebles) josh with each other, insulting customers to their face (Remember electronics stores? Good times.). There’s an extended family (Sandra Gutierrez, Diana Acevedo and David Fernandez Jr.) that’s shopping, and shoplifting

Then POW — a quartet of heavily-armed amateurs storm in and demand access to the safe. They’re big on firing warning shots and screaming, but not the quickest studies. For one thing, these dunces are robbing an electronics store. There’s a reason they’re almost all gone. NO CASH.

The cops show up and they’re trapped, 40 or so shoppers and staff are hostages, a couple of other staff hide out and start helping the police.

Det. Gomez shows up in his beater (“car with character”) and rubs the top cop on the scene (Marshal Hilton) the wrong way. His “under control” laid-back approach gets under everybody’s skin.

“I don’t like chatter,” gripes the SWAT hothead (Rafael Siegel).” It’s a waste of time, in my opinion!”

“I don’t like trigger happy cops,” Gomez half-whispers, because that’s how he speaks. “They get people killed…in MY opinion!”

Inside, the volatile, testosterone-fueled teens turn out to be Vietnamese, and family. Long (Tony Dew) is the oldest and most sociopathic. Loi (Hao Do) is the one who gets on the phone with Gomez, a hothead who calls himself “Thailand.”

He’s the one who screams demands at the sheriff’s deputies and SPD people elbowing each other around outside.

We want vests…leg armor, like ‘Robocop!’ We want million dollars! We want CHOPPER.”

And yes, the “Dog Day” punchline — “We want GINSENG TEA!”

There’s a fine line you walk between tragedy and parody in such stories. Leisure falls off that tightrope, early and often.

The picture’s biggest problems are pace and tension. A hostage thriller has a built-in “ticking clock” for amping up suspense, and easy to exploit elements for reminding the viewer of the stakes.

With hostages who veer between injury and fear, and “These kids are CLOWNS” in their dealings with their captors, a lot of that evaporates.

We’ve seen scores of these movies over the decades. We know how they’re supposed to work. Tight shots, sweaty faces, close-ups of fingers on triggers, criminals whose eyes grow wilder (again, close-up) the closer we get to “Times UP” in the “ticking clock.”

Leisure is entirely too leisurely at tackling those problems. And that pained, weary look Van Peebles wears in his eyes, start to finish? It shows us he realized that, too.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: Unrated, violence, profanity

Cast: Mario Van Peebles, Jessica Meza, Hao Do, Marshal Hilton, Mandela Van Peebles, Sandra Gutierrez, David Fernandez Jr., Tony Dew, Glenn Plummer and Michael Balin.

Credits: Written and directed by Nick Leisure. An Uncork’d release.

Running time: 1:27

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