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Russell Crowe’s road-rage revenge thriller is the first major release to screen in theaters as coronavirus lockdown lifts in the U.K.

Any movie that casts Russell Crowe as a hulking great slab of thin-skinned, two-fisted, short-fuse machismo has got to be aiming a self-aware wink at its target audience. But the knowing humor ends right there with Unhinged, the kind of stubbornly lowbrow revenge thriller that could easily have been released 20 or 30 years ago, probably with a washed-up minor action star as the lead. Director Derrick Borte’s dreary B-movie bloodbath is a baffling career move for a screen heavyweight with Crowe’s track record of memorable, Oscar-winning roles. Then again, the New Zealand-born star did stage a very public “divorce auction” two years ago, so maybe he needs the paycheck?

The makers of Unhinged are hardly the kind of heavy hitters that typically partner with a star like Crowe. The German-born Borte made a promising feature debut in 2010 with his self-penned dark comedy The Joneses, but he has subsequently specialized in minor genre pieces, while screenwriter Carl Ellsworth’s credits have been spotty since he scored early success with the high-concept psycho-thrillers Red Eye (2005) and Disturbia (2007).

But of course, Unhinged is less noteworthy for its cinematic pedigree than for being the first major movie to arrive in theaters as physical screenings begin again after coronavirus lockdown. With a fluid release date that has changed multiple times in recent months, and reviews likely to be mixed at best, the film’s commercial prospects are far from certain. Even so, it topped the German box office last week ahead of wider European roll-out this week. The current U.S. release date through Solstice Studios is Aug. 21.

Mostly shot on the suburban fringes of New Orleans, though the anonymous milieu is never specified, Unhinged begins with a minor road-rage altercation on a freeway off-ramp. Caren Pastorius (Slow West, Mortal Engines) plays Rachel, a recently divorced single mom struggling to balance work stress with parenthood, who blasts her horn loudly at a pickup truck blocking her exit.

Affronted at Rachel’s lack of courtesy, the truck’s driver (Crowe) tracks her down and demands a face-saving exchange of apologies. When she refuses, he unleashes Hell. After following Rachel to a gas station, he steals her phone and begins a vengeful vendetta of violence against her friends and family that escalates into a full-blown fight to the death.

A homicidal psychopath struggling with divorce and depression issues, Crowe’s character is simply called Man in the credits, presumably with the intention of making him some kind of universal Everyman. Does he represent the Beast inside all of us? A spurious thesis, but even the clumsiest stab at psychological shading might have elevated a relentlessly dumb film that seems to be entirely devoid of sociopolitical hinterland.

A smarter writer-director team might have goosed up this sensational revenge scenario into a timely state-of-the-nation address in the tradition of Do the Right Thing, Falling Down or Changing Lanes. But Ellsworth’s clunky screenplay has no evident subtext. It barely even has text.

Released in a charged climate of fierce political polarization, Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement and pandemic panic, Unhinged has a message that seems to boil down to: Women should carefully avoid triggering violent misogynists into venting their White Male Rage. Hmmm, OK then. Just a thought, but summer 2020 may not be the ideal release window for All Lives Matter: The Movie.

In fairness, Crowe — coming off head-turning work in The Loudest Voice and True History of the Kelly Gang — deserves credit for fully committing to such low-grade material with his generally believable, bullish performance as an irredeemably grotesque cesspit of toxic masculinity. The 56-year-old star is a grunting, growling presence, manspreading across the screen like the brawny pickup truck he drives. Sweaty and greasy, he hogs every scene like a mobile mountain of condemned meat.

Then again, there is sadly no self-mocking irony or satirical edge to this steam-belching performance, no hint that the star secretly knows he is better than the material. Perhaps he doesn’t. Indeed, Crowe appears to take Unhinged as seriously as he takes himself, which is very seriously indeed. In doing so, he pretty much denies the film even the consolation prize of being a trashy guilty pleasure. When an actor leaves you wondering how much better Nicolas Cage would have been in the same role, something is clearly amiss.

Even as mindless entertainment, Unhinged is mostly running on empty. Crowe’s colorless co-stars are saddled with thinly drawn stock characters and on-the-nose dialogue. Exterior locations look drab and gray, interiors cramped and stagey.

Paul Buckley’s pounding, galloping, deafening score also tries way too hard to inject much-needed tension into a patchy, preposterous plot. In fairness, Borte and his team deliver some spectacular car stunts, but scenes of bloody violence feel perfunctory and affectless. When minor characters are brutally butchered, it’s frankly hard to care.

Without Crowe’s brooding performance, Unhinged would just be another forgettable, formulaic, functional B-movie. With the burly Kiwi on board, it is transformed into a forgettable, formulaic, functional B-movie starring Russell Crowe. For lockdown-addled film fans who have waited months to see an exciting big-screen spectacle again, the message is clear: Wait a little longer.

Production companies: Solstice Studios, Ingenious Media
Distributor: Solstice Studios (U.S.)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie
Director: Derrick Borte
Producers: Lisa Ellzey, Mark Gill, Andrew Gunn
Screenwriter: Carl Ellsworth
Director of photography: Brendan Galvin
Production designer: Fredrick Waff
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Music: David Buckley
Editors: Michael McCusker, Steve Mirkovich, Tim Mirkovich
Casting: Raylin Sabo, Mary Vernieu
Rated R, 90 minutes

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