Credit: Vertical Entertainment
Before We Vanish by Daniel Gorman Film

Black Site — Sophia Banks

May 20, 2022

Black Site has obvious limitations that cap its ceiling, but as a DTV film in spirit if not in star power, it’s solid enough for target viewers.

Recently, a friend on Twitter mentioned that it was high time to stop using the “DTV” label as a pejorative. His point is well taken: some of the best contemporary action around comes courtesy of this still-maligned subgenre, particularly now that Hollywood has seemingly abandoned any notion of mid-budget pictures in favor of massively budgeted IP properties. But there is perhaps still some value in using the term as a descriptor of sorts; for better or worse, there are some inherent limitations to the DTV aesthetic, however loosely one wants to define it. They are frequently low-budget, filmed on tight schedules in off-the-beaten-path locales, and aren’t typically privy to A-list talent.

Case in point is new military thriller Black Site, a pretty okay movie that mostly succeeds in spite of some obvious limitations. Curiously, it’s got a very recognizable cast, suggesting some extra money spent on above-the-line costs; here, Michelle Monaghan is cast against type as tough-as-nails CIA analyst Abby Trent. After her husband and child are killed in a terrorist bombing in Turkey, she demands to be allowed access to a classified detention center known only as The Citadel. It’s home to the most dangerous, highest priority terror suspects and looks like a cross between Guantanamo Bay and the high-tech prison from Stallone’s The Escape Plan. She’s constantly butting heads with the gung-ho head guard Miller, a former soldier played by a bulked-up, beefy Jai Courtney (who knew there was an interesting character actor hiding behind those male model looks?). Just as Abby is about to finish up an extended tour of duty and head back to the world, the facility gets word that they’ve captured Hatchet, a mysterious terrorist wanted for numerous attacks around the globe. Abby is convinced that Hatchet is the person responsible for her family’s death, and she wants first crack at interrogating him.

It’s an awful lot of setup to get to this point, most of it fairly uninteresting. There’s lip service paid to the idea that torturing suspects and holding them indefinitely without charging them is bad, suggesting a kind of dumber Zero Dark Thirty, but this is geopolitics written in crayons (sample dialogue: “We built this place to fight terror with terror!”). Thankfully, things perk up considerably with the arrival of the aforementioned big-bad Hatchet, played by Jason Clarke. Through a contrived series of events, Hatchet escapes the holding cell where he is being questioned and begins rampaging around The Citadel, killing anyone he can get his hands on. Abby is trying to contain him and take him alive, desperate for answers about her dead family, while Miller wants to shoot first and ask questions later. There’s also a ticking clock element that gets introduced: if the facility doesn’t get its comms back online within one hour, it will be bombed into oblivion to keep its secrets intact.

Director Sophia Banks juggles these concurrent threads with fairly nimble cross-cutting, following Clarke through dark corridors and air ducts as he stalks around the prison while Miller attempts to keep the rest of the detainees in their cells. And there is some absolutely brutal carnage on display; Hatchet fully lives up to his namesake, slicing and dicing his way through people with scalpels and any blunt instrument he can find. Some of the bloodletting is so over-the-top that Black Site enters slasher-film territory, an effect accentuated by Clarke’s largely silent, Jason Voorhees-esque performance. Eventually, the plot thickens and things get dumb again, as we learn more about Hatchet’s agenda and who he’s really hunting. It all leads to a distressingly lackluster grand finale, with some laughably bad green screen effects and a tired monologue about all the clandestine stuff our government is up to. But there’s a solid 45-minute stretch that suggests Banks has a real future in the genre should she so choose. Any summary praise has to be understood as the product of grading on a curve, but still, for a certain type of viewer (you know who you are), Black Site is mostly a good time.

Published as part of Before We Vanish — May 2022.