Clark Duke (“Kick-Ass,” “Hot Tub Time Machine”) has assembled an impressive cast for his directorial debut, the cheeky, hard-boiled Southern drug thriller “Arkansas,” which he co-wrote with Andrew Boonkrong. Duke co-stars opposite Liam Hemsworth as a pair of low-level operatives working for a mysterious Little Rock, Ark., drug kingpin named “Frog.”
Kyle (Hemsworth) is trying to work his way up the ladder when he is partnered with the quirky, libidinous Swin (Duke) for a routine drug run. Almost immediately, they’re waylaid by one of Frog’s men, Bright (John Malkovich), posing as a park ranger, who brings them on to “work” at the park as a cover for their drug trafficking.
Things go sideways with a couple of nefarious interlopers, and Swin and Kyle find themselves on their own at the park, trying to figure out just who they’re working for and how to move forward, with the added complications of menacing visitors, including Swin’s newly pregnant and inquisitive local girlfriend, Johnna (Eden Brolin). Meanwhile, a parallel storyline details the journey of Frog himself (Vince Vaughn), the evasive head honcho of this operation.
“Arkansas” has a wealth of great actors, including Michael K. Williams and Vivica A. Fox, and an assured sense of style and sass. It’s an ironic genre exercise that relies a bit too heavily on well-known tropes like excessive slow-motion and neon lighting for atmosphere, plenty of needle drops and rather unnecessary chapter titles. It’s a whole lot of aesthetic fuss to disguise that there’s nothing particularly original or innovative about the film. “Arkansas” doesn’t break the mold on cheeky, stylish, low-life movies; rather, it worships it.
But it’s a good effort at executing at least the surface pleasures of this genre, with artful cinematography by Stephen Meizler. Hemsworth also does some of the best work in his career to date. He’s believable and grounded as the newbie gangster trying to do the right thing while tumbling down into his dark side, discovering his own faculty for violence. He’s the center of gravity around which the rest of this overly convoluted plot revolves.
As “Arkansas” eases into the latter half of its wholly unnecessary two-hour run time, you start to wonder why the structure has been so chopped and screwed, with vanity chapter titles and parallel storylines that only sometimes randomly veer into each other. Aside from a nod towards Tarantino-inspired nonlinear narrative play, there seems to be no reason for this type of storytelling, which only serves to actively sap momentum and suspense from this yarn. In scenes without any of the visual or auditory flourishes, the dialogue lags, lending evidence to the nagging idea that underneath the stylistic elements, including the twisted plotting, there’s not a whole lot there.
But despite its shortcomings, “Arkansas” is a strong debut for Duke as a filmmaker, pushing him outside of his purely comedic purview into a darker, edgier realm. Marshaling a star-filled cast, he proves to be an actor’s director, eliciting some of the finest work yet seen from Hemsworth, who shows a different side to his capabilities in Kyle’s descent into his heart of darkness.
2 1/2 stars
Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Clark Duke, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Michael K. Williams, Vivica A. Fox and Eden Brolin
Directed by Clark Duke.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
Rated R for violence, language throughout, drug material and brief nudity.
Available Tuesday on Apple, Amazon, on-demand platforms, DVD and Blu-ray.
©2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
©2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.