***/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B
starring Toby Kebbell, Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Ben Cross
screenplay by Scott Windhauser and Jeff Dixon
directed by Rob Cohen
by Bryant Frazer The Hurricane Heist gets down to business from the moment the opening credits appear on a dark screen and we hear the rumble of thunder on the soundtrack. It's 1992, and Hurricane Andrew is slamming the fictional town of Gulfport, Alabama, making orphans of two young boys named (no kidding) Will and Breeze, who watch helplessly through the windows of a farmhouse as their papa is flattened by debris. As the storm clouds recede they clearly resolve the features of a demonic face, laughing at the children from the heavens. (I think I said this out loud in my living room: "Wow.") Fast-forward to the present day, where a guilt-racked Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) is sleeping his way through days and nights as a handyman (and ladies' man) while semi-estranged brother Will (Toby Kebbell) has earned himself a job as a synoptic meteorologist--that is, he drives around in a weather-nerd Batmobile, analyzing storm fronts and predicting their impact, determined that the skies will mock him no more. Bringing the high concept to this pity party is new-in-town treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who happens to be charged with protecting $600 million of U.S. currency earmarked for destruction at a government facility. Unfortunately for her, the paper shredder is temporarily offline and there are villains about who plan to use cover provided by an incoming hurricane to make off with the cash before it can be destroyed. It gets a little complicated--the money ends up locked in an impenetrable vault inside the compound and Casey ends up outside, tooling around with Will. Together, they need to foil the robbery and rescue the hapless Breeze, who is being held hostage inside as the winds grow stronger and stronger.
Casey is good with a gun, but the storyline hinges on Will being some kind of hurricane whisperer, able to anticipate developments in the storm and turn them to his advantage. In an early scene, he warns his complacent boss about the gravity of the situation: "You're underestimating her--I can smell it." A bit later, he's flinging hubcaps into the storm, where turbulence turns them into high-velocity murder weapons. It's that kind of movie--essentially weightless, though its heroes have their share of tortured backstories. (Will blamed Breeze for their father's death and told him so all those years ago; Casey was involved in a tragic snafu in Utah that resulted in her de facto demotion.) It's clear from the start that The Hurricane Heist is not based on a true story, nor is it interested in being one of those punishing human-endurance adventure yarns about a group of brave and/or unlucky men whose grit is tested by a one-on-one power struggle with Nature Herself. Instead, it's a glossy Hollywood actioner produced on a mid-range budget in partnership with two VFX houses that delivers exactly what its title describes so bluntly: a mash-up of a natural-disaster and heist movie, its potential overall feel-bad quotient limited by outlandish visuals and a strategically acquired PG-13 rating.
Director Rob Cohen may not be on the A-list these days, but The Fast and the Furious wasn't that long ago, and his core competencies are still in evidence, including a classical sense of composition and character blocking for the widescreen aspect ratio, as well as the ability to choreograph coherent vehicular mayhem and other action. He got a lot of help from ace DP Shelly Johnson, who's done time on VFX films, including a Marvel movie and Jurassic Park 3 (both directed by Joe Johnston). His work here is necessarily monochromatic due to the grey weather conditions and dull institutional interiors, but there are details in his lighting set-ups--a bright backlight to add contrast, or some soft spots of light to help define the shape of the room--that bring out depth in the images. The performances are more of a mixed bag. Kebbell's character never comes into focus (his laboured Nottingham-on-the-Mississippi southern accent doesn't help), but the Australian Kwanten does a little better at nailing a type, maybe thanks to his years of experience playing a local NOLA yokel on "True Blood". In something of an inversion, Grace goes from fresh-scrubbed all-American agent to bedraggled grunt, playing the part of action hero for much of the film--at least until she's sidelined as a damsel in distress. (Would that the screenwriters had managed to avoid that trope completely.) The requisite flamboyant bad guy is rogue agent Perkins (Ralph Ineson), a snarling, self-regarding pro who's just had it up to here with the incompetence of his colleagues. ("I'm sick of waiting for people," he growls.) He's working with a pair of horny hacker accomplices (Jamie Andrew Cutler and Melissa Bolona) dressed for a Bruno Mars concert who can barely keep their paws off each other long enough to type a line of code, but it comes to naught--you could write them out of the story with barely a change to the plot, although their presence adds a tiny frisson of wtf? that must be a deliberate effect, given how often they're made the focus on screen.
If the PG-13 prevents those two from getting too frisky, it also keeps the bloodshed in check. When the villains swarm the treasury complex early on, they do so with guns loaded with tranquilizer darts--the guards are knocked out then dragged downstairs and locked up in the basement. Those scrupulous practices are tested as the body count rises; once the storm hits, a frustrated Perkins is threatening to go hard-R by feeding one of Casey's colleagues into the disturbingly man-size paper-shredder. The script never goes Grand Guignol but it does occasionally pander to a strain of American bro subculture, as when Will describes a plan in football terms as a "flea flicker," or Breeze reveals his hidden cache of weapons and declares, "I am a citizen of Alabama." On the other hand, the longest string of expository dialogue here is dedicated to explaining that climate change is no joke. It may not be scientifically accurate, but The Hurricane Heist is at least pro-science, and that has to count for something. And the film reaches its delicious apex of boo-yah! when Will uses a barometer and a handgun to create what he calls a "pressure inversion" by shooting a flare through the glass ceiling of a shopping mall so that everyone inside is sucked up through the hole like rag-doll souls called to the rapture. Goofy? Yeah. Implausible? Without a doubt. But also kind of spectacular. While The Hurricane Heist bombed with critics and tanked at the box office, on some level I dig it. It's an impressive level of craft brought to bear in the service of nothing more than filling out your lazy Saturday afternoon.
THE 4K UHD DISC
With a weak $6.1 million U.S. box-office take on a reported budget of about $35 million, The Hurricane Heist doesn't seem like a slam-dunk release on UHD BD, yet Lionsgate has blessed it with an eye-catching UHD BD/HDR10 transfer. The HD picture on the included Blu-ray Disc is dull; the filmed image is largely monochromatic--much of the action takes place outdoors in relative darkness, or inside the drab treasury facility--and graded towards a consistently stormy blue-grey that feels unimpressively dim, if accurate overall. In HDR, the same pictures are more dramatic, with the brighter highlights adding depth and detail to the 2.40:1, 2160p image. In early scenes set at the National Weather Service headquarters, LCD screens and backlit control panels glow like UFOs; in an automotive action scene set out in the rainy darkness, strips of bright white light on Will's weather-tank (known by the production as "the Dominator") glow with the intensity of burning magnesium, making it easier to track its movements in three-dimensional space. Even the raindrops are well lit, giving the storm itself a high-intensity shimmer at close range. Gunfire hitting the car's side panels gives off dazzling showers of sparks and fiery explosions are intense bursts of orange and yellow. Things blow up real good in this picture. Dynamic as the presentation is, many scenes are unnaturally harsh, betraying edge halos that are generally a telltale sign of overzealous digital sharpening techniques. Some shots are also more than a bit noisy, and the noise seems especially chunky in the UHD version. The film was shot with Arri Alexa (3.4K) and Alexa 65 (6.5K) cameras, but it went out to theatres as a 2K, not 4K, DI. I have to wonder if some image-processing decisions that were made with a 2K/HD master in mind have been preserved and amplified, to detrimental effect, in the UHD version.
Audio is top-notch, thanks to an especially fat-bottomed Dolby Atmos track. I only had access to the 7.1 Dolby True HD core, but it was as detailed and directional as you'd expect, with all of the speakers thrumming throughout with music and FX. Dialogue is highly directional, elements of the score are aggressively panned from channel to channel, and weighty bass undertones convey a sense of scale and power as wind whips around the soundstage, generating howls from every corner of the room. A POV shot with the camera placed low to the road as a couple of huge semi trucks rush towards and over it delivers a supremely speaker-rattling flourish.
Director Cohen goes into detail on the production in a full-length running commentary track, and he seems pretty pleased by what he's made, chatting happily for the duration. He falls into the trap of spending too much time retelling and explaining story points--he's like a first-time viewer at his own damn movie, chuckling at gags, marvelling at plot twists, and crying, "oh no!" when danger looms on screen--but also fits in the requisite quota of filmmaking anecdotes, describing the giant LCD screens that served as a kind of next-gen rear-projection system for the scenes shot inside the Dominator and talking about simulating Alabama in the film's shooting locations on the Black Sea. (Cheap local motion-graphics talent, he says, is part of "the joy of Bulgaria.") The attention to detail on set was pretty impressive--Cohen notes proudly, for example, that many of the stacks of bills used as props were created individually so that they would read on screen as actual currency rather than as phony Hollywood money. He also points out his own cameo, claiming he took the role because the production couldn't afford to fly one more American actor to Bulgaria to take a speaking part.
Another Cohen monologue is presented as a video featurette, "Hollywood Heist: A Conversation with Rob Cohen" (24 mins.), and it's not the special-feature norm. Instead of discussing The Hurricane Heist directly, Cohen embarks on an oral history of Hollywood since the 1980s, describing the era when agency-packaged production reigned supreme, lamenting the corporate takeover of Hollywood studios in the 1990s and their subsequent consolidation, and sagely noting the current era's dominance by Marvel Studios and Netflix, the latter of which he calls "the most revolutionary thing that has happened." At the end of the lecture, he holds The Hurricane Heist up as an example of the mid-budget action-adventure film that has become an endangered species. The underlying message? They don't make 'em like this anymore, kids..
A more traditional making-of featurette, "The Eye of the Storm" (18 mins.). includes the usual behind-the-scenes footage and production anecdotes. We get a pretty good look at Cohen's storyboarding process and some of the special-effects rigs, such as a scale model that was used in lieu of a CG effect for a scene when a house is blown over on its side and the big video screens employed for the driving sequences. We learn that the actors, though carefully rigged for safety, did many of their own stunts. And Maggie Grace expresses thanks for a female character who punches, kicks and shoots her way through the story, saying the role was gratifying from a feminist point of view. A "VFX Reel" (4 mins.) from CG house Double Negative wordlessly presents a variety of shots from the film, showing how live multiple layers of digitally rendered elements and live-action footage were composited into various spectacles. An unremarkable trio of deleted scenes (more like extended takes, they run just 2:11 in total) round out the package.