Given all the noise around Force of Nature, it’s hard to get at the movie itself, which on the surface is no more than a routine crime thriller set in San Juan, Puerto Rico during a Category 5 hurricane. What’s not routine is the tweetstorm of controversy ignited by the casting of Mel Gibson and Emile Hirsch, both actors with assault charges on their records, as white cops battling “Rican” villains against the carnage of Hurricane Maria. To say that a real-life tragedy deserves more respect than simply being exploited as a backdrop for a trivial B movie about an art heist would be putting it mildly.
So there’s that. Hirsch, far from the glory days of Into the Wild, takes the lead role of Cardillo, a cop assigned to evacuate an apartment building before the storm hits maximum impact. An old man, a doctor and a cop are among those refusing to vacate the premises. Cardillo, a former member of the NYPD, is ordered to partner with Latina officer Jess Peña (Stephanie Cayo), a local who speaks Spanish, to help with the holdouts. The suicidal Cardillo — a flashback shows him holding a gun to his head in a bathtub after the death of his lover — is a mess.
A bigger mess is Ray, the gung-ho retired cop played by Gibson as if his Lethal Weapon character had turned into a grumpy old man. Ray needs a dialysis machine to function, but he has no intention of returning to a hospital where his next operation is a fecal transplant where he claims, “somebody else’s shit is injected in my ass.” Despite the pleas of the beautiful Dr. Troy (Kate Bosworth), who is also Ray’s daughter, the hardass won’t budge. There is also a barely-caged wild animal on the premises. Her name is Janet and if her owner, Griffin (William Catlett) — the film’s one major black character — doesn’t feed her 100 pounds of raw meat, well … even Joe Exotic couldn’t sooth this savage breast. It should be mentioned that Janet is a cop-hater since Griffin had a previous run-in with white police that left him vengeful.
What to do? Screenwriter Cory Miller, who spent four years as an investigator for the NYPD Internal Affairs unit, had many topical themes to develop here. Instead, Miller contrives to have a gang of San Juan thieves, led by — and the name’s for real — John the Baptist (David Zayas), bust into the apartment complex to retrieve millions in art treasures from Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German senior who Cardillo terms “an old man Nazi fuck” when he hesitates to give up his precious art to save lives. Did you know that Van Gogh’s stolen and still missing Poppy Flowers is worth $55 million? John the Baptist does. And when this crook is not casually slaughtering everyone in sight, he shows off his knowledge.
The actors are helpless against a script that forces them to trade simpering backstories when they’re not shooting to kill or making bad jokes. “Take off your uniform,” says John the Baptist to Cardillo in an effort to disguise himself as the law. “What — I just met you,” smirks the cop in one of the film’s feeble attempts at banter. For many, the film’s shocking incompetence can only be rivaled by the greater shock of learning that Force of Nature is directed by Michael Polish. For the past two decades, the filmmaker (along with his identical twin, Mark Polish, who often co-writes and takes an acting role in the films his brother directs) have been constants on the art-house circuit. From their 1999 debut feature Twin Falls Idaho through Jackpot (2001), Northfork (2003) and For Lovers Only (2011), the brothers established themselves as distinctive talents. There is nothing distinctive about this toxic available-on-demand tripe except the absence of Mark Polish, though Michael didn’t spare his wife Kate Bosworth from acting duty in a thankless role. One thing’s for sure: This downpour of offensive ethnic stereotyping is a total washout.