Review: White Elephant Is Not a Good Movie, But a Stacked Cast Makes it Watchable
In all likelihood, you haven't seen any of director/co-writer and prolific action filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson's movies. But with a surprisingly solid cast, his latest work, White Elephant, might change his profile for the better, even if the film itself isn’t all that great. The movie focuses on two main characters: ex-marine enforcer Gabriel Tancredi (Michael Rooker), on the verge of retirement, and a police detective named Vanessa (Olga Kurylenko), who witnesses an assassination by Gabriel’s replacement, Carlos (Vadhir Derbez, son of Eugenio Derbez). The pair of killers is ordered to take care of all loose ends by their boss Arnold (Bruce Willis), so they seek to eliminate Vanessa after they kill her partner.
Rounding out this somewhat stacked cast is John Malkovich, who plays Arnold’s long-time attorney and is frequently consulted by Gabriel on the general mood of their mutual criminal boss and just how legally dangerous particular situations might be. Vanessa goes on the run and into hiding, but no one can be trusted, especially with Gabriel and Carlos on her tail. But as Gabriel does research on Vanessa and gets to know a bit of her story, his conscience begins to kick in and he is torn about this relentless pursuit of someone who probably wasn’t a threat to the organization in the first place. It doesn’t help that Gabriel begins to distrust Arnold's judgement when it comes to seeking revenge on rival criminal groups, and pretty soon Gabriel goes rogue on his boss and friend.
White Elephant is not a good film, but it is elevated ever so slightly by a cast that actually seems to care about the work they’re acting in. That being said, in light of his aphasia diagnosis, it’s difficult to watch Willis in this performance and not notice how many of his lines are delivered off-camera or in short sentences that seem to be cut together to appear seamless. Still, his scenes with Rooker are pretty great, and it’s clear that Rooker is the one guiding Willis through these exchanges like the professional he is. In fact, Rooker is the glue that holds the movie together in general, choosing a quieter, more thoughtful and less bombastic approach than he often does for his characters.
Gabriel has endured a great deal of sadness and hurt in his life, and he has clearly internalized all of it and made himself better at his job as a result. If the film had primarily centered on him, White Elephant would have been a better movie. As it stands, you have to sift through some debris to get to the best material. I can’t promise anyone that search is worth it, but there are a few jewels shining through this jumbled and messy work, with a high body count and not much else—a valiant effort, but not quite worth the effort.
The film is now playing in theaters and is available to stream on AMC+.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.