When we first meet Everly (Salma Hayek), the central character of director Joe Lynch’s gimmicky new action thriller, we don’t see her at first: all we hear are her screams as she is subjected to some sort of offscreen violation at the hands of the Japanese crime cartel thugs who have been sent to kill her for reasons we learn a bit later. Then from above, we see her flung into a bathroom, naked and trembling, where she pulls herself together, retrieves a concealed gun from its hiding place, and proceeds to re-enter the main room of her swanky apartment to blow almost each and every one of them away.
That opening scene sets the tone and pretty much the narrative for Everly; Salma gets cornered, blows people away, and looks beautiful as she does it. But the questions begin right from that opening scene: how did she learn to shoot so precisely? How can a ruthless criminal army not land one fatal shot even as she punches each guy’s clock in methodical fashion? And why did they let her into the bathroom anyway if they were going to kill her?
As Everly regroups and forms a bond of sorts with the one man who survived the initial massacre but is mortally wounded — the gang accountant (Akie Kotabe is billed as “Dead Man,” which gives you some idea of the character development here) — we learn more of her back story: she was kidnapped some years ago and made into a sex worker by Yakuza chief Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), who uses her as his own personal plaything as well. When Everly betrays the organization to the one honest cop on the force, most of whom are owned by Taiko, that sets in motion his plans to kill her.
But Everly has one powerful, compelling reason to live: the five-year-old daughter who she barely knows and has left in the care of her long-suffering mother (Laura Cepeda). The plot of course contrives to bring grandma and the little girl to Everly’s apartment where she somehow manages to hide them, even as she fends off more Yakuza, SWAT team members, and the neighboring prostitutes who are all vying for the $50,000 bounty that Taiko has offered to the first person who guns Everly down.
The problem with Everly is that it wants to think it’s smart, but it’s intensely stupid. That lack of intelligence is glossed over with some stylishly vicious violence and Steve Gainer’s smooth, rich cinematography, but those can’t hide the fact that the movie reveals its hand early. Afterwards, it’s just about playing the same cards over and over until you just get tired and want the thing to end (even after its relatively brief 90 minutes). Lynch’s movie quickly becomes repetitive, crass, and manipulative, whether it’s through the use of discordant Christmas references (yes, he goes that familiar action route of setting the story around the holidays, for no particular reason), constantly leering shots of Hayek’s tank top and tight sweatpants-clad figure, and a wildly sadistic torture scene that actually stars someone named only as the Sadist.
The gimmick is that it’s all set in Everly’s luxurious studio apartment (with brief glimpses of the hallway outside and, via security cam, the lobby downstairs), which gives it the air of a stage play — even when a rocket comes blasting through a window late in the game. The film feels cramped physically, but also temporally and intellectually — we’re meant to believe at one point that Everly somehow can hide a dozen bloody bodies, clean up the mess, gore, and debris left behind, and get herself cleaned up and dressed before her mother shows up with her daughter in tow. But of course, Everly is just short of a metahuman in this scenario; she’s virtually indestructible even as the trained killers sent to silence her drop like paper targets at a shooting range.
As for Hayek, she never gets mussed up enough to stop looking great and she’s solid enough with the action, even though she is given so little to play as a real character. She’s a cartoon figure, the screen equivalent of the voluptuous female superheroes that have kept comic books in a gender dark ages for years until only just recently. It’s hard to feel much for her, especially when her less-than-stellar strategic thinking is often at odds with the professional way in which she sends her attackers to their doom. Out of the rest of the cast, only the Sadist and his henchman the Masochist make much of an impression — but for the wrong reason: they seem to have stepped out of a parody of a Quentin Tarantino film.
Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) channels Tarantino here, along with Die Hard, and a few other key action references, but he doesn’t do anything new or innovative with any of it except for a handful of striking camera moves and some interesting fight choreography. Even the idea of the central action hero being a woman is not as fresh as he wants you to think it is: it’s always a welcome change of pace, but not in a movie that is so thin on the surface while trying to disguise its essentially exploitative nature. Even the one climactic plot point that might have given the film a little weight and resonance is undermined by the director’s desire to leave open the chance of a sequel. I can already tell you the probable plot of that sequel before it even exists — but I doubt Everly will catch on enough with anyone to allow a follow-up to become a reality.
Everly is out now on VOD and opens in theaters February 27.