Adam Alleca writes and directs the 2016 film Standoff, a sometimes chatty and sometimes gratifying thriller. There are those who will hold that the movie is smarter-than-thou, with its psychological wrangling. And there are those who will be engrossed by the manly head-to-head. And there are those who will find value in the both elements, however disparate.
Setting a picture against a gimmick, whether it’s two wounded men in a house or some sort of first-person shoot-em-up or a dip back to the silent era, is almost always a risk. There’s a tendency for audiences to give in to pessimism, to watch with arms crossed and to expect more from the premise because there is actually a premise to speak of.
This premise starts with a girl named Bird (Ella Ballentine), who is visiting the grave of her parents. She likes to take pictures and happens upon a crime as the hitman Sade (Laurence Fishburne) strolls out of the woods and kills some people. The wee shutterbug snaps off some pictures and draws the attention of Sade, who gives chase.
Bird flies to the home of miserable war vet Carter (Thomas Jane), who is no Rambo and no Punisher. He has troubles and believes the answers are at the bottom of a bottle, but he vows to protect the girl after Sade bursts in and starts shooting the place up. The two engage in self-described battle of wills, all inside Carter’s flat.
Standoff gives plenty of weight to its characters, even if they do run into broken man clichés. Carter has experienced all the pertinent loss in the book, which makes him a ragged soul in need of blah-blah redemption. His house is being packed up and he’s in the middle of divorce because his wife (Joanna Douglas) can’t stand to look at him.
There are flashbacks to lay the cards on the table. A red balloon tracks off into the sky like something out of a how-to-schmaltz manual and there’re a lot of overhead shots from Zoran Popovic’s lens and it’s all very sad in that character-building way. It’s reasonable. It’s a movie.
The blustering Fishburne’s Sade has his own problems, man. But they’re hidden in conundrums and manipulations. He spouts off the aforementioned Johnson quote, the one about becoming a beast to get rid of the pain of being a man, and it’s maybe the most honest thing he’s ever said. He mentions he has a daughter. That may or may not be true. That may or may not matter.
The acting is about as reasonable as one would expect. Sometimes it feels like Fishburne and Jane are reading lines at each other from across the room, like the thing could be a play if the play was the thing. And sometimes the two actors make their way behind the stagecraft and pull at each other, whether it’s when Fishburne sits on the piano or when Jane tells the girl he ain’t in no way giving up.
Sade and Carter engage in a not-quite chess match over Bird and it’s pretty straightforward from a storybook standpoint, but there’s something beneath the surface that suggests Alleca’s screenplay is attuned to the game. Men play at erudition and swerve into irreverent hysterics when they remember their wounds. Carnal reminders bring them back to earth, away from pontificating.
Those are the essential attractions of Standoff, really: the suggestions behind the ploy, the splaying nocturnal flames, that play at these two men. And they play at all of us. And they remind us, to quote Johnson once more, that “men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.”