Friday, February 16, 2024

'Lights Out' (2024) Movie Review

Mekhi Phifer hugging Frank Grillo
Lights Out knows what you came to see. (And it's not the horror Lights Out.)You came to see Frank Grillo throw down. And throw down he does. Constantly. It’s also precisely the movie it advertises itself as, and while your mileage may vary, if this is your thing, this is very much your thing. It begins with a tactical running battle and moments later there’s a bar brawl. If that sounds like a good time, you’re in luck.


This also bills itself as the first movie where Grillo and Scott Adkins share the screen. Which seems insane but is the god’s honest truth. Though the two chiseled, grizzled, oft-bearded badasses have certainly been making many movies of a similar ilk over the years, they’ve never appeared in one together. Until now. However, if you’re looking an epic team up, you may be a bit disappointed. This is a Frank Grillo movie with a splash of Scott Adkins for flavor. They only share a couple of moments together—Adkins isn’t exactly a cameo, but he plays a relatively minor role—though those moments deliver all the gleeful action fuzzies you want out of this pairing. 


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Dermot Mulroney and a fence

Plot wise, Lights Out traipses through typical DTV action territory. Duffy (Grillo) is an ex-soldier drifting around a seedy underbelly of dive bars and backroom card games. After a brawl, ex-con Max (Mekhi Phifer) takes notice of Duffy’s skills. They team up for a series of underground fights, which puts them in the orbit of low-level crime boss, Sage (Dermot Mulroney). As so often happens, they get in over their head and must contend with the fallout. 


While the main narrative thrust of the movie is simple, there’s a lot of other stuff crammed in here. Beyond Sage, there’s a cadre of corrupt cops, fronted by Ridgway (Jamie King) and Kincaid (Paul Sloan). Because Max, of course, has a heart of gold, all he really wants to do is take care of his sister (Erica Peoples) and niece (Jailyn Rae), but they, obviously, get caught up in the blowback. The family stuff is typical overly idyllic melodrama that, while fine, is largely inert. And the cops aren’t just corrupt, they’re comically corrupt. There are allusions that they’re in trouble with nasty cartel folks, but that mostly comes up in phone calls and honestly, the whole Ridgway subplot feels, at best, undercooked. (You must imagine there was more that was cut out or left un-filmed for budget reasons, story purposes, or various other causes.) 


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Mekhi Phifer and Frank Grillo again

It’s readily apparent when Grillo is invested in a project versus taking a money job. Fortunately for Lights Out, he’s in on this one. Outside of his punching ability, the whole shebang hangs on his clench-jawed, tough-guy charisma. He’s weary and road-worn, and despite his protestations, Duffy loves throwing down in back alleys and warehouses, it allows him to work out his anger issues and lingering PTSD. The trauma thread shows up prominently early on, but the movie doesn’t have much time or interest in examining it much deeper, so it falls by the wayside in favor of fist fights. (This also happens with ideas of the government failing soldiers coming home from war, using them up then discarding them, and other themes; but the movie can’t help itself, it just wants to bang.) Max proves a nice foil for Duffy, and when Phifer’s fast-talking, always-scheming charm bounces off Grillo’s stoic demeanor, the two sides balance each other well. 


While Grillo and Phifer carry the day, they’re surrounded by a who’s who of side characters and character actors. I love Mulroney’s current career trajectory, showing up in smaller DTV movies, he plays an excellent scum-fuck and I’ll watch him all day. Amaury Nolasco shows up as a fight promoter, Kevin Gage gets his turn to stare down Frank Grillo, “Cowboy” Cerrone pops up as, get this, an MMA-fighter-turned-henchman, and we even get an appearance by JuJu Chan Szeto, even if she’s woefully underutilized. 


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scott adkins and frank grillo together at last

Adkins plays Don “The Reaper” Richter, Duffy’s army buddy. Like I mentioned, he only shows up for a few scenes. He appears during an opening war scene and in a few flashbacks to Duffy’s tragic/heroic military days. And, thankfully, he rides in for an “I’ve got to call an old friend” style climactic battle. Would we like to see more? Of course. Would we like to watch an entire movie of Frank Grillo teamed up with Scott Adkins? Duh. But even a relatively short stint, seeing two of the best working on-screen fighters together is damn special.


If you’re familiar with the work of director Christian Sesma (Section 8) or writer Chad Law (Til Death Do Us Part, Shrapnel), or much of this cast, you generally know what to expect from this movie. I happen to love this shit—this was on my most-anticipated movies of 2024 list for good reason—so I enjoy the hell out of Lights Out. (I recognize that I am 100% the target audience for this movie.) It promises certain things up front and delivers precisely that, a kickass movie about ass kicking. [Grade: B]

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