“Margot Robbie. Your pulp didn’t pop, and your Sin City femme fatale was not a sin-sation. You’re safe.”
Several things are certain with the Margot Robbie-starring pulp thriller Terminal. First, Robbie and the film are largely in drag – as a femme fatale for the star, and the movie itself as a hyper-designed genre piece. Second, it’s not always good drag but a hoot nonetheless. Third, it’s essentially only Robbie that emerges unscathed. RuPaul and Frank Miller wouldn’t be upset, just disappointed.
The film is an odd and oddly unimposing debut from writer/director Vaughn Stein. Sprawling across the wee hours of a neon metropolis, Terminal is a dingy vague crime saga with Robbie’s waitress and/or stripper Annie threading its dangerous crosshairs. There’s a mysterious unseen crime boss proposing a big payout to two assassins, a concerned Simon Pegg serving mostly as Robbie’s sparring partner, and, uhh, Mike Myers lurking in subway stations and basements. Wrapping your head around the plot is a head-scratching enterprise amid its sweaty green palette and smoky visuals. It plays something like a musical with the songs cut out.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to examine Terminal without comparisons to the works that inspired it considering how nakedly it borrows from their aesthetics and pastiche. Those comparisons both make the film reveal its comparative shortcomings and where it may have taken a myopic approach to its genre. What is noir without a willful dance with the dark, pulp without subversion, or character tropes without distinction between them? Terminal knows all of the pieces it needs to make a fun genre exercise, but not how they should interact.
Individual scenes largely feel like the opening of a music video, with schlocky dialogue and a self-aware, winking sense of ease to narrative thinness. Much as it may frustrate in its limitations, Terminal can’t be blamed for not clearing the low bar it sets for itself. By the basis of its surface, stylistic aims, it succeeds by giving us plenty to keep our eyes darting around the lurid screen and giving Robbie a quasi-demented playground to let down her hair. The film certainly goes down easy if unsatisfying, like a slushie that eventually becomes melted sugar water.
But Robbie is the film’s most vibrant ingredient and its game key player. Donning umpteen wigs and loony costumes, the actress’s sense of delight in the material is rather infectious. It’s an inoffensive trifle performance and film, and while Robbie proves to be a performer ready to go full camp, Terminal seems just fine with its half-steps.