Review: ‘Paradise Highway,’ starring Juliette Binoche, Frank Grillo and Morgan Freeman

September 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hala Finley and Juliette Binoche in “Paradise Highway” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Paradise Highway”

Directed by Anna Gutto

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mississippi, the crime drama film “Paradise Highway” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking trucker find herself on the run from the FBI and trafficking gangsters when she rescues an orphaned, adolescent girl, who is a human trafficking victim and has killed one of the human traffickers.

Culture Audience: “Paradise Highway” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman, but the movie is substandard and frequently dull and has too many implausible plot elements.

Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan in “Paradise Highway” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche is unfortunately miscast as a gruff truck driver who goes on the run with a child trafficking victim in “Paradise Highway,” a tedious and tacky movie that is ineptly made on every single level. And just because another Oscar-winning star (Morgan Freeman) is in this horrible film doesn’t make it any better. Freeman has been doing a lot of bad and forgettable movies in this late stage of his career. In “Paradise Alley,” he plays yet another grizzled and world-weary law enforcement agent who always seems to know more than everyone else around him. Yawn.

Written and directed by Anna Gutto, “Paradise Highway” rips off too many clichés from other movies about a jaded person with questionable morality who’s suddenly forced to take care of an orphaned child while going on the run from people who want to kill both of them. And you know what that means: The cynical adult ends up bonding with the kid in a parental way, after many arguments and near-death experiences. (See 1980’s “Gloria,” starring Gena Rowlands, which was a groundbreaking movie for this concept.)

Viewers are supposed to believe that Binoche—an elegant French actress who is usually in much-classier movies—is a tough-talking French Canadian trucker named Sally, who’s secretly involved with drug smuggling in the United States, where Sally currently lives. Sally (who is a bachelorette with no children) communicates by CB radio with other female trucker friends named Rose (played by Veronica Ferres), Pattie (played by Desiree Wood) and Dolly (played by Dianne McNair-Smith). Their CB radio talk looks like something out of a Lifetime movie version of the trucking lifestyle. The beginning of “Paradise Highway” shows a montage of these female truckers talking to each other by radio, which makes it all too predictable what will happen later in the movie when Sally gets into serious trouble.

Why is Sally a secret drug smuggler? She’s doing it because her younger brother Dennis (played by Frank Grillo), who’s in prison on drug trafficking charges, is being threatened by his drug trafficking cronies. These thugs say that Dennis will be killed by their allies in prison unless Dennis enlists someone on the outside of prison to replace Dennis. Dennis turned to Sally to be his outside proxy. He tells Sally to do whatever he asks her to do, or else he says he will be murdered in prison.

One of the first signs that “Paradise Highway” is an idiotic movie is that even though it’s mentioned that Dennis and Sally grew up in the same abusive household, Dennis and Sally have very different accents from different countries. Dennis has an American accent from the East Coast, whereas Sally’s accent is French Canadian. The movie gives no explanation for this accent discrepancy. And it doesn’t help that Binoche is never completely believable as a rough-and-tumble French Canadian trucker.

One day, Sally goes on what she thinks will be a typical drug shipment pickup in Mississippi. Instead, to her horror and shock, she finds out that she is being tasked with trafficking a girl who has been kidnapped and is about 11 or 12 years old. “No way,” Sally says, “I don’t take people.”

One of the traffickers in charge is a sour-faced woman named Claire (played by Christiane Seidel), who has this to say to Sally in response: “No way I can promise what will happen to your brother if you don’t take the girl where she fucking needs to go.” Sally reluctantly takes the girl, whom Sally later finds out is a runaway orphan named Leila (played by Hala Finley). Leila says that because she ran away from an orphanage, the chances are low that anyone is looking for her.

Before Sally goes to the pre-determined location, she gets a call from Dennis, who has smuggled a disposable burner phone into prison. Sally angrily tells Dennis that human trafficking isn’t part of their deal, but Dennis tells her just to go through with the plan, or else he’ll get killed. Throughout the movie, Dennis keeps calling Sally on a burner phone, which makes you wonder how he’s able to have all of these secret phone conversations in a maximum security prison.

And so, Sally agrees to go along with the plan to drive Leila to a human trafficker named Paul McKinney (played by Jim Dougherty) at a pre-determined location in a remote wooded area. From the beginning, Leila shows that she’s not going to go quietly, and she puts up a fight, so she has to be bound and gagged. When they get to the dropoff location, Sally unties Leila to get ready to hand Leila over to Paul.

Things descend into chaos when Leila takes a shotgun that Sally had in the truck and shoots Paul dead. In a panic, Sally and Leila flee the scene. Most of “Paradise Alley” is about Sally and Leila trying to hide from the criminals and law enforcement officials who are looking for them. Sally is afraid to go to another state, so they stay in Mississippi, where “Paradise Highway” was filmed.

It isn’t long before the FBI gets involved, because the FBI has been investigating this trafficking ring, which now has one of its key members murdered. FBI special agent Finley Sterling (played by Cameron Monaghan) is on the case. But he’s essentially being told what to do by FBI retiree Gerick (played by Morgan Freeman), who now works as a consultant for the FBI.

Gerick and Finley have a stereotypical movie relationship of an older cop working with a younger cop. The older cop treats the eager-to-please younger cop as naïve and stupid, while the younger cop tries to prove the older cop is misjudging and underestimating the younger cop. The older cop in this cliché partnership is also usually more willing to bend the rules, while the younger cop is more “by the book.”

It isn’t long before Sally is identified as the prime suspect in Paul’s murder and is exposed as being involved in the trafficking ring. And so, Gerick and Finley lead law enforcement’s hunt for Sally. They soon find out that Leila is with Sally, who could also be arrested for kidnapping and human trafficking. Claire and her partner in crime Terrence (played by Walker Babington) are also in hot pursuit of Sally, with the intention of killing Sally and Leila, who both know too much about the trafficking ring.

“Paradise Highway” has a scene where Sally confides in Leila about why she is so loyal to Dennis. Sally explains that when she and Dennis were children, their widowed father would physically abuse them. Dennis got the worst of their father’s beatings and would protect Sally as much as possible from these physical assaults. Their father also sexually abused Sally. Sally says of her loyalty to Dennis: “Now, it’s my turn to take care of him.”

One of the dumbest things about “Paradise Highway” is that Sally’s getaway vehicle stands out for being a green-and-white semi truck, but she uses this huge truck the entire time that she and Leila are trying to “hide.” Sally also makes no effort to hide or disguise her license plates. In other words, using the truck makes her much easier to find than if she used a regular, non-descript vehicle, but the movie unrealistically shows Sally being able to dodge her pursuers for an extended period of time in this massive truck.

Why can’t law enforcement use helicopters to find Sally and her truck? The movie offers this silly excuse: Gerick goes to a Mississippi sheriff (played by Bill Luckett), who’s portrayed as a hick, to use the department’s helicopter. The sheriff tells Gerick that his department doesn’t have a helicopter because the department can’t afford a helicopter. It’s all so ridiculous because the FBI has the money to get its own helicopter and doesn’t need the permission of an underfunded sheriff’s department.

“Paradise Highway” is filled with too many scenarios of bungling law enforcement and the relentlessly moronic decisions made by Sally, who never thinks of a way to find another vehicle to use. The movie’s action scenes are poorly staged. The editing in the movie is amateurish.

All of the cast members give mediocre or lackluster performances, although Finley, in her portrayal of troubled Leila, is better than most of the cast. It’s not enough to save this abysmal movie, which has a very corny and unrealistic ending. Simply put: “Paradise Highway” leads to a hellish road of lousy filmmaking.

Lionsgate released “Paradise Highway” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 29, 2022. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Vanquish’ (2021), starring Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose

May 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruby Rose in “Vanquish” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Vanquish” (2021)

Directed by George Gallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action film “Vanquish” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the criminal underground and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: A corrupt and retired police officer forces a former colleague to do some of his dirty work, in exchange for setting her kidnapped underage daughter free from captivity.

Culture Audience: “Vanquish” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind wasting time watching a dimwitted, poorly made and incoherent film.

Morgan Freeman in “Vanquish” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

At some point while filming the horrific embarrassment that is “Vanquish,” Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman must have asked himself, “How did I end up in this garbage movie?” It might have been an easy paycheck for Freeman, but it came at a cost to some of his dignity to be in this putrid cesspool of terrible filmmaking. Freeman seems to know it too, based on his zoned-out performance, which is barely distinguishable from the rest of the stiff and terrible acting that stinks up this trash pile of an action flick.

Viewers unlucky enough to watch “Vanquish” might think that the movie’s sloppy and amateurish filmmaking might be from a first-time feature-film director. No, “Vanquish” is the 13th feature film directed by George Gallo, who made his feature directorial debut with the 1991 dramedy “29th Street,” starring Anthony LaPaglia, Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan. Gallo is best-known as the screenwriter for the 1988 crime-caper comedy “Midnight Run” (starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin) and for coming up with the story that would turn into the 1995 action hit movie “Bad Boys,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

Based on his filmography, Gallo has done plenty of movies about mismatched people who are involved in some criminal activities. In other words, this type of subject matter isn’t new to him. And that’s why it’s even more mind-boggling that “Vanquish” (which Gallo wrote with Sam Bartlett) is so badly bungled on every single level of filmmaking. The plot is nonsensical, the aforementioned acting is cringeworthy, and the way that the film was shot and edited makes some no-budget YouTube prank videos look like masterpieces in comparison.

It’s a very bad sign when “Vanquish” has an opening credits sequence that lasts for a bloated six minutes. That’s how long it takes for the movie to repetitively show newspaper clippings and news footage of police officer Damon Hickey (played by Freeman) becoming a decorated hero during the course of his long career. (The movie doesn’t mention where this story takes place, but it’s supposed to be in a U.S. city.)

Damon’s career was cut short when he was gunned down in a shootout that left him with paraplegia. And so, throughout this entire dull and dreary movie, Damon is in a wheelchair while he lives by himself in a sleek-looking mansion worth millions. How could a retired police officer afford such a luxurious home when he doesn’t come from a rich family and there’s no sign that he married into wealth? And how could Damon’s ownership of this mansion, which is beyond his cop salary, not raise suspicions from law enforcement?

This illogical movie never answers the second question, but it answers the first question. Damon has been a corrupt cop involved in skimming money from drug deals and other crimes. And he’s been able to get away with it. For reasons that aren’t made clear except for vague references to revenge, Damon now wants payback from certain people in the criminal underworld. And he plans to steal loads of cash from them.

And that’s where Victoria (played by Rose) comes into the picture. Victoria, who is originally from Australia (as is Rose in real life), is Damon’s caretaker and a single mother to a daughter named Lily (played by Juju Journey Brener), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Victoria is in for a shock one night when she and Lily are in Damon’s home, and Lily goes missing. Damon calmly informs Victoria (whom he calls Vicky) that Lily is safe but in captivity, and Victoria won’t get Lily back unless Victoria does what Damon says.

Damon wants Victoria to go to five different pre-planned places to pick up cash. But it’s not as simple as that. Damon also wants Victoria to murder anyone who gets in her way. Damon knows exactly where his criminal targets are gathered at these places. And so, even if any of these crooks owed Damon any money, he won’t be satisfied with just the money. He wants them dead.

And why is Victoria so qualified to do these dirty deeds? She used to be a drug courier for the Russian mafia, which explains why she has assassin skills. It doesn’t explain why viewers have to be subjected to the idiocy of scene after scene where she’s able to single-handedly take on several armed opponents at once and never miss a target when she fires a gun.

After Victoria goes to each of the location to murder people and pick up a bag of cash, she gets on her motorcycle and delivers the cash to Damon. Then, Damon and Victoria spew some badly written lines that are supposed to be arguments. And then, Victoria hops on her motorcycle to go to the next destination. Freeman literally does nothing in this movie but sit in a wheelchair and act cranky and self-righteous.

During the course of this movie, viewers find out that Victoria can not only speak Russian but she can also speak German and French. Be prepared to hear Rose mangle words in different languages. With her limited acting range (and that’s putting it nicely), she barely has command of the English language.

Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a muddled storyline about some gangsters who’ve caught a snitch in their group. This snitch’s secret audio surveillance was found on a portable cassette tape recorder that would need a wire for remote recording. What year is this? 1991?

Viewers know that this movie takes place in the era of digital, wireless recorders because Damon keeps track of Victoria through a high-tech digital video surveillance system that he requires her to wear during her robbery/killing spree. And that’s why it’s almost laughable that the snitch was found with a cassette recorder that looks like it was left over from an old episode of “Law & Order.”

The snitch has been killed, and the people he secretly recorded are corrupt cops who used to work with Damon. They include B.J. (played by Paul Sampson), Erik (played by Miles Doleac), Sniper (played by Richard Salvatore) and Max (played by Ele Barda). These goons show up at various points in this messy story, where not even the clergy is immune to the corruption. In a flashback scene, Damon is shown in a confessional with a priest named Father Thomas (played by Bill Luckett), who’s been in cahoots with Damon in their criminal activities.

Are there any good cops in this story? Not really. There are some law enforcement people who turn up at various points in the movie, but they don’t do anything except say moronic lines while they hang out in seedy bars. The cops in the movie certainly don’t seem to be doing any real police work.

These useless characters include Detective Stevens (played by Nick Vallelonga), Detective Kehoe (played by Chris Mullinax) and Agent Monroe (played by Patrick Muldoon). Freeman isn’t the only Oscar winner in the “Vanquish” cast. Vallelonga won two Oscars for being a writer and a producer of the 2018 dramedy “Green Book.” It goes to show that being an Oscar winner doesn’t automatically give someone the good sense to avoid bottom-of-the-barrel projects.

While Victoria speeds around the city in her motorcycle to go from destination to destination, Damon inexplicably acts as if he’s her personal GPS, by giving her directions. Expect to see a lot of footage of Freeman sitting in a wheelchair and barking empty lines such as “Go there!” or “Turn left!” The only direction this movie goes is off the rails.

Victoria is armed with two large guns that she keeps exposed in full view while they’re tucked into the back side of her jeans. And so, there’s scene after scene of her walking into these criminal hangouts, where her guns are exposed and no one stops her or questions her. The bodyguards who are supposed to protect the criminals are completely incompetent (just like this movie’s screenplay is incompetent), because it doesn’t take long for Victoria to open fire and slaughter everyone in sight. Remember, she never misses a target.

During her first stop at a nightclub where her targets are, Victoria shoots and kills some people in a back room without a gun silencer, and the movie wants viewers to believe that no one could hear the gunshots because the door was closed. These lunkheads apparently didn’t think that a known associate of Damon’s who walked into the club with two guns sticking out of her back wasn’t going to use these guns.

After these murders, Victoria manages to rescue a prostitute named Galyna (played by Hannah Stocking), who begs to be set free from these thugs. Victoria decides that she and Galyna should play it cool and walk out of the club as if they’re friends having a laugh. “Can you pretend I’m funny?” Victoria asks Galyna. Galyna replies, “I’m a prostitute!,” as if to say “I already know how to act.” Too bad no one knows how to act in this film.

Another mindless massacre scene is one where Victoria encounters an over-the-top effeminate/flamboyant gangster named Rayo (played by Joel Michaely), who has one of the worst fake Southern accents you’ll ever hear in a movie. Victoria shows up unannounced at Rayo’s home. Rayo offers Victoria some Mint Julep, as if she’s at the Kentucky Derby, not in the lair of a sleazy criminal who has some heavily drugged young men on his living room sofa. (Adults will know exactly what those young men are doing there and why they’ve been drugged.)

And because Victoria is as dimwitted as this movie’s screenplay, she drinks the Mint Julep, even though she sees that there are people on the sofa who are in a drugged stupor. The Mint Julep is laced with a sedative, of course. Damon is watching this fiasco the whole time on his video surveillance camera. As Victoria is about to pass out from the unnamed drug that she ingested in the Mint Julep, Damon sees that there’s a small mound of cocaine on a nearby table. You can easily guess what he tells Victoria to do and what happens next.

And did we mention that Victoria used to have a (now-dead) brother who was her partner in crime? It’s of no consequence to this movie’s plot because it’s just another useless detail that’s thrown in to make it look like Victoria has a backstory. She really doesn’t.

That’s why there’s a ludicrous moment toward the end of the film where viewers find out that Victoria’s mother is the governor of the unnamed state where this movie takes place. Governor Ann Driscoll (played by Julie Lott) had not one but two children caught up in running drugs for the Russian mafia, and somehow this was never exposed by her political opponents. What a way to get elected.

One of the most annoying aspects of “Vanquish” is how it over-saturates the movie with fade-in/fade-out editing, as if to mimic a fever dream. It’s more like a nightmare to sit through this rubbish. The movie’s blaring soundtrack is distracting and often drowns out the dialogue.

And the filmmakers mistakenly thought that “Vanquish” would look artsy by having substandard cinematography that tries to make almost every interior look like a neon aquarium. It doesn’t look artsy. It looks garish and tacky.

In the production notes for “Vanquish,” director/co-writer Gallo makes this statement that reads, in part: “I have always enjoyed the Korean gangster film genre ever since I first became aware of them. These films have a cool, bouncy and deliciously dark vibe and most importantly, a great sense of humor … My attraction to ‘Vanquish’ was that I could make a film that I hadn’t really done before and infuse my love of these genres into my film.”

First of all, please don’t insult Korean cinema by comparing “Vanquish” to Korean gangster films. It’s like comparing toxic trash to works of art. Secondly, there is absolutely no humor in “Vanquish,” unless viewers want to laugh at how horrible everything in this movie is. And lastly, “Vanquish” does the exact opposite of what Victoria does every time she fires her gun: The movie completely misses the mark.

Lionsgate released “Vanquish” in select U.S. cinemas on April 16, 2021, on digital and VOD on April 20, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27, 2021.

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