Published Aug 06, 2020The world is about to get reacquainted with Val Kilmer in a big way with the release of Top Gun: Maverick in 2021, where he'll reprise his iconic Iceman role alongside Tom Cruise's lead flyboy. In the meantime, Kilmer fans will have to make do with the much more modest and mediocre Paydirt, helmed by Christian Sesma, a writer/director who has made a name for himself over the last decade with a string of indie action films, most notably 2016's graphic novel-styled Vigilante Diaries.
Like Sesma's previous output, Paydirt follows the antics of a smack-talking group of street-smart hustlers in their quest for justice, vengeance, financial gain — or whatever. This time, a buried stash of drug money is the lodestar for our heroes, the spoils from a drug deal gone horribly wrong — or did it go exactly right? The answer to this frankly boring question is at the centre of whatever claims to complexity this film has (all laboriously explained in a post-finale wrap-up), but you'll likely have stopped caring long before the credits roll. There is a basic watchability here, and Kilmer tries valiantly through it all to lend some pathos to his stock character of a washed-up small-town sheriff, but elevating the poor writing frankly requires more than he can bring, and there's little else to recommend Paydirt beyond maybe its ability to dispose of 90 minutes after you get home from the pub — you could do worse.
Kilmer is actually granted precious little to do here. Instead, we stick mostly with the super-cool Damien (Luke Goss, doing his best Rob Halford impression in shades and tailored biker gear for most of the film) and his crew of criminal buddies (all of whom get freeze-framed introductory moments where their nicknames flash across the screen like it's 2003) as they try to locate 33 million dollars buried somewhere in the Salton Sea. As the nicknames suggest (in this case: The Babe, The Brain, The Brawn — the yawn), there is a distinctly sub-Guy Ritchie flavour to the knockabout action/comedy antics of Paydirt, with Damien's character (The Brit) serving as a kind of geezery stand-in of genre authenticity; he presides over his Fast and Furious-style family unit with an authority apparently earned before the events of the movie.
The problem is that none of these characters are particularly interesting or likeable, none of the events they get caught up in are exciting or memorable, and none of the writing has any sparkle or wit — and it frankly needs a good edit sometimes. One confrontation between Damien and El Gordo Godinez, the leader of the cartel that's out the 33 million, takes a laughable turn when the latter explains that getting his 33 million back isn't about pride, it's about the money, then explains that he makes 30 million a month, so it's actually not about the money, it's in fact about respect, but then tells us that respect has a price tag — of 33 million dollars. There's a hammy sort of unintentional amusement to this performance (Jay Montalvo, wheezing, oxygen mask in hand), but your eyes will roll.
As far as action goes, the violence, when it does occur, is treated in a perfunctory, non-sensationalized manner that actually does the film credit — there's no stylized, slo-mo acrobatics, or heroes walking nonchalantly away from explosions, just matter-of-fact shooting portrayed as commonplace in the gritty milieu the characters move in. Some ropey effects are on display once the bullets do fly, however, with rubbery red holes appearing on people suddenly like an especially deadly skin condition — it's perhaps for this reason that most of the action involves characters just standing around pointing guns at one another while yelling; John Wick this is not.
While the action is at least serviceable, the film's attempts at laughs are unfortunately more dire, aiming at a broad, sophomoric humour that grows tiresome quickly. A largely ad-libbed scene in a storage room between The Brawn and The Brain (Paul Sloan and comedian Mike Hatton) where they just abuse one another with unimaginative insults like a couple of high-school dullards is especially weak, and a cutaway gag of them watching History Channel edutainment through a haze of weed smoke while arguing about conspiracy theories provides an inadvertent glimpse into the kind of audience Paydirt is pandering to — Joe Rogan as The Brain would frankly have been a more on-brand, high-profile get for Sesma than the adrift Kilmer.
And what to make of Kilmer here? He does a fine enough job in the standard rogue sheriff role, searching for redemption by going after the villain that cost him his job, waking up with a start in his car beside an empty bottle and scrawled note pad. But his arc is almost superfluous, taking place separately and mostly to the side of the main action until the final showdown with Damien, a disappointing mano-a-mano scene that ends limply, squandering whatever dramatic fatefulness was supposed to be on display. More could have been done to flesh out this relationship and make better use of Kilmer, who's aged face and whispery delivery (a necessity, apparently, since his recovery from throat cancer) lend him a unique presence.
The same could be said for the apparent history between Damien and Godinez—the latter even says that Damien is "like a son" to him at one point, a throwaway line that hints at a better movie lost in the edit. More time exploring the motives and relationships of this fundamental trio and less time spent with the juvenile antics of Damien's disposable crew of buffoons would have been worthwhile, as there are hints of better movies shimmering like a mirage on the edges of Paydirt — Sicario in the sun-bleached setting and relationship between Damien and Godinez, for instance, and perhaps No Country For Old Men in the idea of the disputed cash left out in the desert. We are miles away from those excellent films however, stuck instead with charmless characters and boring macguffin chasing while the real goods are on the periphery. (levelFILM)