Though the film is lurid, it’s neither transgressive nor reflective of any larger attitude or vision.
If you need something to distract yourself while watching Misconduct, try to reimagine it as a film noir from the early 1950s, a studio B picture the executives didn’t much care about as long as it came in on time and under budget. In the lead role of “Ben,” the young lawyer caught up in a web of intrigue, you might replace the handsome but talentless Josh Duhamel with John Payne, who somehow managed to embody that tough noir grit in spite of his earlier work in musical comedies; you could switch out the hilariously bombastic score for the lush melodies of Elmer Bernstein; with only a few changes, Misconduct would fit right in between 99 River Street and A Kiss Before Dying.
When Ben is contacted by an ex-girlfriend, Emily (Malin Åkerman, a femme fatale par excellence), he is gradually drawn into a high-stakes legal battle. Emily, who’s involved with Arthur Denning (Anthony Hopkins), the head of a pharmaceutical company being sued after a drug trial caused the deaths of many, has evidence that Denning knowingly covered up certain information about the drug in order to allow the trial to go forward. Ben brings this information to his boss, only to find Emily dead in her apartment soon after. It’s set up to look like a suicide but Ben (and the audience) knows better: someone is sending a message, and it’s only a matter of time before a steely, motorcycle-riding henchman (Lee Byung-hun) catches up with him.
This film shows all too clearly how distant the classic era of film noir really is. Directors like Phil Karlson, Raoul Walsh and Joseph H. Lewis took advantage of their low industry status to create some of the boldest, toughest, most daring and visually expressive American films of their time; Misconduct tries to elevate itself by casting industry veterans Al Pacino and Hopkins, who sleepwalks through his role, but doesn’t bother to provide them with remotely interesting or complex characters. Lee makes an impression as the mostly silent motorcycle killer, but his character is so tangential to the story that his presence mostly feels like padding. As for Pacino—well, at least he doesn’t embarrass himself here, but it’s a shame that that should come as a relief with one of our greatest living actors.
Though the film is lurid, it’s neither transgressive nor reflective of any larger attitude or vision. Its endeavor to entertain and nothing more is not an ignoble one, yet screenwriters Adam Mason and Simon Boyes don’t bother to come up with a compelling or original story that might command our attention. So what are we left with? A few slick visuals, but nothing approaching a coherent style. Director Shintaro Shimosawa’s background is in producing American remakes of Japanese horror films and garbage television series, and here he directs with the same heavy hand needed in those arenas. Admittedly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a contemporary film that doesn’t intentionally ape the noir style but, with modest ambition, simply traffics in its tropes; after all, noir only became codified years after the fact, and its true essence is still hotly contended to this day. But Misconduct is all bones and no meat, a rote and instantly forgettable compendium of clichés and, in its final stretch, absurd plot twists.
One of the film’s final shots, a sustained close-up of one character’s face, is rather chilling at first, before the absurdity of the information being revealed really sinks in. It’s enough, though, to suggest what Misconduct might have been had this character been fleshed out before arriving at this twist. Or, you know, if anyone involved in the production were really trying. At all.