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Vice (2015)
Director: Brian A. Miller

review by J.C. Hartley
Spoiler alert!
I found the first half-hour of this film so repellent that it was hard for me to treat the rest of it with anything more scrupulous than contempt. An attempted violent bank robbery freezes with the perpetrators caught in the classic Butch and Sundance pose, exiting a building with guns blazing. Julian Michaels (Bruce Willis) appears to pitch the concept of 'Vice' his high-end Westworld knock-off in the near-future where people can indulge in consequence-free, well, vice. Would any holiday camp of the future really call itself 'Vice', with that word's sleazy connotations? Well maybe.

From that beginning what the apparently well-off punters of Vice want to do is beat the living-shit out of women before blowing them away with hand-guns. We follow tough-guy detective Roy (Thomas Jane) as he obtains a warrant to follow a suspect onto the city-within-a-city that is Vice. The suspect in question is indulging his predilection for beating up women, and complains that Roy has no jurisdiction in the complex, the detective points out that the crime of rape and murder happened outside in 'his' city, and violently takes him down. It seems we are to be in that dubious moral hinterland established by Michael Winner with Death Wish, where the viewer is coerced into the voyeurism of despicable acts and then placated by witnessing the rough justice handed out to the perpetrators.

Vice employee Kelly (Ambyr Childers) wakes up to cocktails with her best friend Mel (English actress Charlotte Kirk), and it is her last day working at Vice. Kelly has had a strange dream about pursuit and finding sanctuary in a church. During Kelly's stint behind the bar she meets and chats to a pleasant man Evan (Bryan Greenberg) with whom she makes a connection, before finishing her shift and leaving with a tipsy Mel. Accosted outside the bar by a customer they had cold-shouldered earlier Mel insults him, whereupon he draws a gun and shoots her before throttling Kelly. In a central control room Michaels orders in a clean-up squad.

Kelly and Melissa are taken to a laboratory where a couple of functionaries spoon-feed us exposition. Kelly and Melissa, and all the employees, other than guards and technical staff, are 'artificials' - bio-mechanical constructs. The science is suitably hazy; they might be cloned somas, organic androids, or whatever. Once repaired, and their memories wiped, they are back on the shop-floor for the serial abuse that seems to be their working lot, gathered from the glimpses of beatings and violent fucking we are offered via Kelly's mind's-eye. This time however the mind-wipe process goes wrong, and Kelly goes on the lam, pursued by the most inept heavily-armed goons ever, who discharge about a million rounds failing to hit her, while Kelly displays previously unsuspected athleticism worthy of Scarlett Johansson in Lucy.

All the ordinance that has been discharged creates a bit of an incident and detective Roy, in contravention of orders, seeks an interview with Michaels. Roy objects to Vice because rather than sublimating its customers' violent tendencies, they just take them out to the streets. Back in the 1970s in an episode of ITV's excellent Thriller series, a violent sociopath had a shop window dummy in a basement whereon to take out their violent rage, when the dustmen accidentally took the mannequin the slasher started stalking real people. There was more engagement with psychology and characterisation in that hour-long episode of Thriller, including adverts, than there is in the whole superficial farrago that is Vice. Clearly there is a debate to be had about violence, and sometimes the cinema can provide a platform for that; increasingly there is a need to question the nature of consciousness, and sentience, and what makes us human, and to consider those questions it might be better to view Ex-Machina, rather than ending up feeling like you've taken a dip in a sewer by watching Vice.

Willis, I imagine, isn't short of a bob or two. I imagine, despite his cameo in The Expendables 2, he still gets decent scripts; Looper was very good. So why did he make this? He adds nothing to it, except his name on the credits conning me into reviewing it, and possibly help with getting finance. He trundles around like a giant cocktail-sausage saying lines like 'But that's impossible,' and 'The applications are endless.' Given the theme they may has well have hired a retired crash-test dummy, or better still the air-bag. Thomas Jane does grunge, chewing a tooth-pick, that's not ironic and referential it's just lame. Okay, he's given up smoking, so what?

Turns out Kelly is an evolving AI created by Evan (remember him, you might want to read back) to preserve the memory of his deceased wife. When Michaels liked the technology so much he bought the company he got Kelly too. Evan tries to get Kelly on a ship to St Helena; my anticipation of the end of the movie was dashed when Michaels' goons finally managed to shoot someone and Evan got wasted. Kelly and Roy join forces to take Vice down, which they do by uploading a program which allows the artificials to remember their past lives, sending them on a killing-spree. Michaels gets killed, but in the lamest, and most predictable shot of the movie, as the camera lingers on his face he opens his eyes.

So, are we supposed to imagine he's an artificial, more to the point are we really expected to care? This is a final insult, except for the inclusion of a commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette in the disc extras. The fact that this is released on blu-ray when I still can't get a decent version of I'll Never Forget What's 'Is Name defies belief. Straight to DVD? No, straight to land-fill.

Vice on blu-ray

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