Former stuntman-turned-DTV action film director Jesse V. Johnson has shot six feature films all released in the current 24-month cycle. He’s proven himself to be an efficient and effective purveyor of stylized violence, especially in half of those films that are collaborations with martial arts maven Scott Adkins, largely genre exercises designed to showcase his fighting skills. But one of them, 2017’s The Beautiful Ones, is an oddball curio, a gangster picture claiming to be a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Instead of modernizing the Bard, Johnson’s strange and uneven experiment shows a director awkwardly trying to wriggle free from a well-worn paradigm that’s otherwise done well for him.

Ross McCall stars as Gabriel Tancredi, a mob enforcer for the Tancredi crime family in Los Angeles. He falls for Eva Romano (Fernanda Andrade), the daughter of rival crime boss Tony “The Shark” Romano (Anthony V. Pugliese III). Outside of the obviously star-crossed nature of their courtship, however, there’s little else here tethering the narrative to its alleged source material.

The crime fiction plot between the warring factions is barebones and the actual romance at the center of the film is rather brisk, so much of the film is actually less concerned with the trappings of the genre than with the cloying tics and preoccupations Johnson foists upon his cast. The only plague on either house here is a Tarantinian obsession with LA film culture.

Gabriel is less an actual character than an unhealthy obsession with Steve McQueen bundled into an ill-fitting person suit. Early in the film, he tells the audience (who he communicates with both through voice-over narration and direct-to-camera fourth wall breaking) that a minor fling with a woman won’t work out directly after she confesses to never having seen Papillon. But the Tinseltown ephemera doesn’t stop there. Gabriel’s boss, a truly terrible Julie Warner as Caterina Tancredi, is basically a sad wine mom who compulsively watches the same awful reality show when she’s not ordering hits or kidnappings. It’s every paint-by-numbers mob thriller ever made, only populated by milquetoast stand-ins spouting dry dialogue ripped from a Film Twitter debate.

What’s fascinating is that Johnson’s other films rarely seem to be made by a man who is in any way ashamed of his meat-and-potatoes brand of action fare. His movies are often inventive explorations of basic genre tropes, populated by smart performers elevating straight-to-video pictures into minor flashes of brilliance. Here, he seems bored with the movie presented on the poster and would rather be writing a True Romance pastiche with slightly different pop cultural influences.

That’s not the worst thing in the world, but Tarantino was able to tell that story because his protagonist was a regular joe thrust into a noir tale. The main character here is an actual denizen of the criminal underworld, dually presented as an exacting film aficionado and a dyed in the wool bad man. The film might work if we didn’t have to accept him as both all the time. Imagine watching Pulp Fiction and having Vincent Vega be treated as sternly as a Charles Bronson character. It’s breaking the aesthetic distance in a weird, unnecessary way.

But as bad as the dialogue is and as wooden as the performances are, there’s still plenty of style and an affable kind of charm keeping the film afloat. It’s just a shame that a movie that features two minutes of screentime from a pitch-perfect Eric Roberts and completely shafts a compelling turn from Brian Tee in a supporting part felt the need to run with such unpleasant actors in the meatier roles.

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