White Elephant might satiate devoted JVJ fans but will feel warmed-over for other DTV action heads.
Even the best filmmakers have a few stumbles in them. Jesse V. Johnson, considered for a while now to be the best of the DTV action auteurs, isn’t immune. His films tend to be ambitious and character-driven, in addition to featuring superb low-budget action. But his latest effort, White Elephant, is largely sluggish and convoluted even while it colors inside the lines of his general project of offering his protagonists-of-action a measure of contemplative interiority. It might do just enough to satisfy Johnson’s fans, but more general DTV action heads might be left fairly disappointed.
Michael Rooker plays Gabriel, an aging enforcer for mob boss Angelo (for now sadly obvious reasons, a barely ambulatory Bruce Willis). He’s also still in mourning for his recently deceased wife. In order to help Gabriel take care of some nebulous shenanigans between two rival gangs, Angelo inexplicably pairs him with Carlos (Vadhir Derbez), a world-class fuckup who immediately botches a bombing and gets spotted by cop Flynn (Olga Kurylenko), and so Angelo orders Gabriel to take her out, even while his right-hand man is developing some sympathy for his quarry.
On paper, that sounds like a recipe for a sturdy chase film rife with shifting loyalties. But Johnson is less interested in the action mechanics here and more with his characters’ reckoning with their own grief and relevance. It’s not far off from his two Debt Collectors films; there’s an attempt here to mirror those films’ central mentor relationship, but White Elephant is lacking their comedy as well as their glee in stylized violence. Once the action does start, it’s typically economical and graphic, but by that time most audiences may have already checked out. Johnson fans will find an almost deliberately discombobulated and never less than technically sturdy work from a filmmaker who continues to do his own very specific thing, but despite that particular bit of reliability, White Elephant feels like a missed opportunity to craft something a bit more idiosyncratic and exciting.
You can currently stream Jesse V. Johnson’s White Elephant on AMC+.