Performances Enrich Wicked Blood
By Kristin Battestella
Netflix finally stopped wait stalling on the 2014 homegrown drug thriller Wicked Blood, and although it has some shortsighted hang-ups, the cast makes this watch worthwhile.
After the death of her parents, Hannah (Abigail Breslin) lives with her older sister Amber (Alexa Vega), a waitress, and their paternal, drug addicted Uncle Donny (Lew Temple). Unfortunately, the sisters remain indebted to their mother’s brother, local crime boss Frank Stinson (Sean Bean), and his hot headed henchman Bobby (Jake Busey). Hannah, however, takes matters into her own hands and insists on going to work for Uncle Frank by delivering drug packages on her bicycle. She befriends secretive biker and drug distributor Bill (James Purefoy) in her deliveries but remains unaware that he is also romancing Amber and that her interference in the family business threatens Frank’s entire empire.
The situation in Wicked Blood is immediately bleak with angry kids, disturbed older siblings, and a whole lot of “hillbilly crack.” Everyone waxes so wise, gives attitude, and insane drug use is also instantly apparent yet there need not be so many setting the crappy household scenes to start Wicked Blood. How they got to this destitute situation isn’t fully explained by writer and director Mark Young (Tooth and Nail, Dead Bodies, Southern Gothic), but one awkward dinner scene sums up all we need to know perfectly – especially when contrasted to Uncle Frank’s comparatively upscale lifestyle. He’s supposed to look out for this lesser part of the family, but their dressed up dinner invitation is clearly just to affirm his power over them. Wicked Blood provides some lovely and tender moments in this drug business control and reasonings on life being too painful to remember so drug stupors are how you forget. However, it’s too obvious that Hannah will be getting things done herself despite the fact that her situation doesn’t appear drastic enough to resort to such actions. There’s no catalyst to make her turn so dire other than having a bad year after her parents’ deaths. In fact, her interference brings about worse extremes, and ironically, the instigation seen in the finale should have been the crux that sets Wicked Blood in motion. The sporadic chess narration and gaming parallels are also an unnecessary, juvenile connection for an R rated and otherwise adult picture, and the hardworking humor tone over the bicycle riding, drug-delivering montages is also awkward. Wicked Blood could have been ironic and funny, sure, but the despair starts off so strong and so dang serious, that any levity or change in tone feels uneven and compromises the fine statements being told. Why are these people under one crime boss’ thumb? Why can no one break out of this living by honest means? Can one be a respectable hard worker in a life of crime? The don’t do drugs, stay in school, obvious yadda yadda rationale on why this kind of life is bad gets a little repetitive during these 90 minutes. Wicked Blood perhaps again proves the theory that a writer and director should not be one and the same – especially if this is one man wearing multiple hats in what is largely a feminine piece. This isn’t a super gritty, stylized, or always an entertaining picture to see, and a counter balance person looking for the cinematic smooth would have polished Wicked Blood beautifully. Thankfully, the real life desolate and multi layered human story is diversified by each hard luck family member. The crisscrossing characters both known and unknown and near or far create interconnecting twists and relationship wrenches. Refreshingly, the plot doesn’t judge its players and the pace remains heavy without being artsy fartsy in its storytelling. There are a few turns in Wicked Blood I didn’t expect, yet I can’t decide if I’d rather this have been a full on, flaw free, complete character piece or a more complex and involved criminal thriller. Enough ensemble examinations and underworld interplay are here to keep Wicked Blood watchable, but with a few refinements, it could have really driven home all its nuances.
All grown up Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland) is obviously beyond her country means in Wicked Blood because she plays a “stupid game” called chess; it’s almost amazing she is as well put together as she is considering her irresponsible surroundings. Hannah dresses in tomboy clothing and carries herself as older than she is while every other character affirms how in over her head she is by calling her a little girl or crazy kid and threatening her with foster home talk. She’s somewhat too sassy and full of gumption to be believable at times as well – she’s delivering magic baggies to biker gangs and gives them that kind of attitude? In the real world, unfortunately she’d be dangerously put into place instead of merely being called a pistol, spitfire, or little shit. Her youthful morality is touched upon when she visits the cemetery, but again redundancy creeps in when every character comments that she’s like her dead parents or should get a boyfriend. Hannah quickly gains a badass rep and respect at her “job” but she never considers the deadly consequences of her deliveries. It’s implied she wouldn’t have resorted to this work if her parents were alive and that life was better then, yet this criminal family life was all already happening. It was probably just a matter of time before Hannah encountered this world, but she stupidly attempts to play middleman for both sides of the drug clientele whilst also trying to save others from it. Why does she think she knows better than these experienced drug dealers? We like Hannah and want to see her escape this Wicked Blood, yet it becomes increasingly difficult to root for her in the mess she created amid an already desperately fragile, dangerous business. Her plans are faulty, she lashes out at others who could help, and this weak dialogue in what should be a special none too seen role for a teen girl comes off as a touch too wishy washy. Some mature audiences won’t like Wicked Blood for all her stupidity. Is Hannah empowered by these actions and satisfied with the outcome? She could have left everything alone and ended up with the same result eventually. Did her immediacy help her? Perhaps, but at a very high cost from others.
Now, how did it become obligatory that Sean Bean have a naked chick by his side in Wicked Blood and all these direct to video pictures like Soldiers of Fortune and Death Race 2? Is it just because he’s Sean Bean? The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones alum is like a mini don with his rules about not talking to the law and promising to look after the kids so long as they don’t bite the hand that feeds them. The dichotomy of the character isn’t explored beyond what Hannah sees, but Uncle Frank is an intriguing figure – intimating enough for one to desperately remain on his good side yet also sentimental in remembering his late sister. Perhaps he’s too easily convinced to have Hannah join his bike delivery squad, and hello, it is an odd decision to help someone out by having her deal drugs for you. Bean puts on a fairly generic southern accent of course, but his delivery, swagger, and threats come across as always. Frank sits on his veranda, seemingly genuinely concerned when things turn for the worse while he drinks lemonade and chats about drug distribution chains slipping through his fingers. How did he get to the top if all seems so shaky? The dark room with the spotlight desk is a little too The Godfather wannabe complete with an ominous, “You come in here, insult me…” Frank is a big fish in a little pond businessman who can’t control his own family, but the broad writing again hampers the serious possibilities. Ultimately, the don has to get his hands dirty – if you want something done right, have Sean Bean do it, baby!
James Purefoy (Rome, The Following, and Sharpe way back in the day with Bean, too!) also provides an interesting conflict for Wicked Blood as he simultaneously woos Amber and buys Frank’s no good goods. Bill isn’t really that shady – he knows his motorcycles, befriends Hannah, and may be the lone stable influence in her life – yet he’s also hiding something and keeping Amber in the dark about all his dealings. Alexa Vega (all grown up from Spy Kids) seems bitchy from Hannah’s perspective and antagonistic as her older sister Amber should be, but her trying her best working waitress is good with customers, knows her job, and is understandably trying to get out of this crappy existence. She’s a bit too clingy upon meeting Bill, but they also have endearing chemistry and sympathy. Each represents and outlet or glimmer of light and hope, but for all Amber’s straight and narrow, it doesn’t help her any in Wicked Blood. Contrastingly, Jake Busey’s (Starship Troopers) younger Uncle Bobby hit man uses fear and menace in his up close violence and dangerous impulses. He’s personal with fists, objects, and close range gunfire but not as stupid as he seems. Despite some uneven Crazy Glue quirky at the wrong time, Bobby is not to be underestimated thanks to Busey’s imposing stature and psychotic on command. Likewise, Lew Temple (The Walking Dead) embodies drugged out Uncle Donny wonderfully. He’s a nice guy trying to forget his troubles through drug addiction yet he knows the err of his ways and gives words of safety and care to Hannah whilst fondly remembering her as a smiling innocent kid pre-drug distribution biking. His druggie saying no to drugs and stay in school parable is a too little hooker with a heart of gold supporting character cliché, granted. However, Temple is surprisingly engaging and gives a fine, cohesive performance.
Wicked Blood also serves up a few country songs on its menu to further create its sense of southern irony, but the occasional twang or happy go lucky tunes are somewhat misleading compared to the heavy title. Then again, the slow opening credits echo the bleak of Wicked Blood a bit too much. The absence of major law enforcement and text messaging in the contrived finale also give the impression that technology or the outside world weren’t really thought through or are merely used as needed. For what should be a hard-core picture, the stripper scenes are too brief and the nudity weak. Frank’s nightclub, Amber’s diner, and Hannah’s bike riding montages are too abstractedly set with little dressings, dark photography, and rough camerawork. It’s not that the filmmaking is bad per se, it just seems amateur or bland; Wicked Blood looks the low budget standard and doesn’t really set itself apart visually or strive for more. Of course, such well dressed crappy is probably by design, as the perfectly isolated natural locales, empty roads, swamps, shabby trailers, and rundown houses are relatable and certainly represent something most audiences have seen. Props also to the redneck porch swing – a country toile couch strung up on a tree! If you doubt the accents used by the cast, their real voices are nice to hear on the short but insightful behind the scenes interviews on the blu-ray edition. Although I do wish there had been a commentary or conversation with writer/director Mark Young to help resolve some of the unpolished aspects of Wicked Blood.
Yes, Wicked Blood certainly has a familiar, un-ambitious, often uneven, and sometimes obvious B-grade direct to video feeling. I’ve seen far worse make it to the cinema, but viewers can’t come to this movie with any expectations of Oscar glory. There will be dialogue too colloquial for some audiences and the domestic abuse or incestuous violence will be iffy even though similar stories have been done more artistically or better disturbed elsewhere. Longtime heist or thriller fans may be disappointed in the action elements and Wicked Blood might even anger folks who have it or think they have it a lot worse yet don’t resort to this kind of behavior. So who exactly is the audience here? Wicked Blood is not for kids regardless of its teen female protagonist but it isn’t tough enough for hardened adult viewers. The story is depressing and characters are both cliché yet multidimensional, but fans of the cast or ensemble driven pieces can enjoy Wicked Blood thanks to the rising to the occasion players and their bittersweet performances.