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‘South of Heaven’ Film Review: Jason Sudeikis Gets Lassoed into Cheap Genre Thrills

The actor gets to show off his dramatic chops, but that’s not enough to justify this grimly derivative thriller’s existence

“See, life has its own way of plannin’ things,” convicted felon Jimmy Ray (Jason Sudeikis) explains to his parole board at the start of “South of Heaven.” For Jimmy, those plans include one final year with his fianceĆ© Annie (Evangeline Lilly), before she dies of lung cancer.

Happily, life had far better plans for Sudeikis, whose success in “Ted Lasso” ensures he won’t have to accept grimly derivative thrillers like this one ever again.  

As for Jimmy, he gets started on those plans as soon as he finishes his 12 years for armed robbery. His beloved Annie picks him up right outside the prison, with both dreaming of a quiet year together. Jimmy’s crooked parole officer Schmidt (Shea Whigham), however, has other ideas.

Soon Jimmy’s reluctantly playing bagman for Schmidt, which is just the start of his problems. When he inadvertently loses an important package, he winds up square in the sights of smooth kingpin Whit Price (Mike Colter). Whit kidnaps Annie as revenge, so Jimmy impulsively kidnaps Whit’s feisty tween son Tommy (Thaddeus J. Mixson, “Safety”) in return. Things only go downhill from there.

Director Aharon Keshales earned some attention in 2013 when Quentin Tarantino publicly praised his stylized Israeli thriller “Big Bad Wolves.” Here, Keshales seems to be repaying the favor by turning to early Tarantino for inspiration. Genre fans might enjoy the violent setups, and the scenes of one-upmanship between Whit, Jimmy and Tommy are briefly amusing.

But unless there’s a franchise serial killer involved, any plot that’s reliant on a combination of coincidences and the characters’ head-slappingly stupid decisions could use some additional rewrites. When a movie is headed in such a clear direction, it needs something else — setting, soundtrack, cinematography — to stand out and surprise us. Otherwise, it feels unfinished at best and empty at worst. Indeed, the only participant able to elevate the formulaic proceedings (written by Keshales, his “Big Bad Wolves” collaborator Navot Papushado, and Kai Mark) is Colter, who glides through with so much cool he may as well actually be in a Tarantino movie.

Sudeikis digs deep and delivers as well as he can with what he’s given. But he and Lilly are unable to find a common thread with each other or, ultimately, their characters. Who is Jimmy? We have no idea. Sometimes he seems to be sweet, dopey, and molasses-slow; other times, he’s so canny and sharp he can outwit master assassins.

As for Annie, her impending death provides a major impetus for much of the action, but the sole sign of this wrenching tragedy is the pixie cut she continually touches, as if Keshales wanted to remind us of her illness while ensuring she remains gorgeous until the end. (Short Hair: the new Ominous Movie Cough?)And though Lilly and Sudeikis feel like a random pairing, their lack of chemistry may have been inevitable: We never get convincing reason to believe that Annie would devote her short life to an ex-con who can’t stop stumbling into trouble.

Presumably, Sudeikis took this job to prove his dramatic skills, and he does deserve credit for achieving that goal. What he’s never able to generate, though, is a compelling case for the movie itself.

“South of Heaven” opens in U.S. theaters and debuts on-demand Friday.