Directed by: Peter Billingsly; Runtime: 93 minutes
Action-crime thrillers tend to throw in solutions to problems at the drop of a hat: a conveniently placed weapon, a getaway car, a stranger who can hide someone or something on short notice. This tends to be an infuriating but sometimes necessary thing to keep the suspense moving forward, and it doesn't hurt that the introduction of those devices adds a bit of surprise energy to their respective films, even if a little doubtfulness gets tossed in as well. Director Peter Billingsley -- yeah, that Peter Billingsley -- would probably prefer for his latest directorial effort, Term Life, to be remember for more than "rational thinking", perhaps for the father-daughter bond built between the main characters or the gray-area corruption of cops underneath the manhunt for them. The featureless execution of its more dramatic undertones redirects attention to the little things that this limited release (practically direct-to-video) flick intermittently does right, producing a forgettable cat-and-mouse thriller that at least prides itself in remembering to foreshadow.
Term Life stars Vince Vaughn as Nick Barrow, an Atlanta-based career criminal who doesn't actively do any of the criminal activity himself. He's an architect for heists, complex and elaborate ones that require precise timing and awareness of circumstances, to which he maps out and passes on to paying individuals. One of his jobs, despite going off without a hitch, lands him in hot water with a significant crime lord, who, naturally, discovers that Barrow has a daughter, Cate (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he gets to spend very little time with considering his profession. In her rebellious teenage stage and coping with an alcoholic mother, Cate finds herself whisked away by Barrow before the cartel's underlings can get to her first. While on the run and hiding, the father-daughter Barrow team run into difficulties identifying with one another, which they'll need to overcome if they're going to stay two steps ahead of both the criminals and the shady cops after them -- led by Bill Paxton's Detective Keenan -- until Nick lands on a solution.
Gruff narration from Nick Barrow and black-and-white flashbacks frame Term Life in mundane trappings of the crime-thriller genre. From conversations about heists conducted in very public spots to predicting red-light patterns and cellphones going off as convenient distractions, it's full of easy moving parts, driven by a low-key, almost introverted performance from Vince Vaughn as the heist architect. Sporting a distracting haircut that's humorously addressed early on in the film, Vaughn works alongside a surprisingly robust cast filling out the people whom Nick Barrow interacts with as he sinks deeper into hot water, from Jonathan Banks as Barrow's helpful mentor and Jon Favreau as a bizarre hoarder of an informant to Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in cursory supporting roles. The validity of the cast props up its mundane thrills, put into motion by Vaughn in ways that would've benefitted from more of the gristle he brought to the second season of True Detective, where he's instead an unremarkable sympathetic criminal underneath the mop hairdo.
Once Cate enters the picture, Term Life refocuses its attention to the troubled relationship between an absent criminal father and his defiant, angry daughter, and that kills much of the film's momentum. The Barrows are on the run, sure, but their plan doesn't have them moving around very much, leaving other events happening outside their hiding -- the pressure placed on others by the vicious crime lord; the maneuvers of a corrupt batch of detectives -- to build the tension, which comes and goes. Instead, Vince Vaughn and Hailee Steinfeld engage in relationship-building that fits somewhere between the criminal daughter molding in Matchstick Men with the volatile guardianship of a minor in Leon: The Professional, with a dose of teenage angst thrown in for good measure. This might've worked had Vaughn and Steinfeld shared the right kind of chemistry, yet their evolution from a family at loggerheads to a tighter, understanding bond merely goes through the predictable motions amid clothing disputes, carnival rides, and Nick explaining to his daughter how to do what he does.
The framework of an engaging crime-drama exists underneath Term Life, including a batch of villains whose motivations tiptoe along the line of justifiable and conflicted immorality, none of whom make very many outright poor judgment calls. Director Billingsley combines that antagonist angle with a smart grasp on dropping clues as to how characters might get in and out of situations, whether it's directing attention to a potential weapon or introducing minor characters who do somewhat harebrained things for the people that ask. There's a noticeable amount of care here put into crossing Ts and dotting Is, igniting a few bursts of intelligent, modest bursts of action. Unfortunately, with the cluster of gunfights and car chases against the backdrop of Atlanta -- and cute nods to the town liberally thrown in for some flavor -- Term Life never puts those mechanical smarts to work in a way that'd craft a fresh take on this familiar story, lacking the personality or the vigor to better appreciate its due diligence to credibility.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 7/18/2016