The vision board for “Terminal” must have been incredible. It’s certainly easy to picture: the cold geometry of Stanley Kubrick married to the sleazy neons of Nicolas Winding Refn, a pair of smirking hitmen ripped from some Tarantino-flavored auteur of the month, tossed in with a Party City vision of femininity: sexy waitress, sexy nurse, quasi-demure stripper.
Like a teen’s journal, writer-director Vaughn Stein’s debut feature is a scrapbook stuffed with allusions. The fondness is clear. But the resulting compilation is self-indulgent twaddle.
Many an award-season darling sees a terrible project come out in the months right before or after Oscar night, with distributors hoping that a star’s time in the spotlight will boost the profile of an otherwise forgettable film. “Terminal” is Margot Robbie’s. In her first on-screen role since her virtuosic turn as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya,” Robbie at least looks like she’s having fun as a Cockney-cadenced waitress-stripper-hitwoman with the apparent moral compass of an Iron Maiden.
She makes hokey, on-the-nose lines like “I have an unquenchable thirst for darkness and depravity” sound like silk sheets rubbing against each other. But this brain-dead material resists being elevated even to the level of schlocky fun.
Plaudits are due, if nothing else, to cinematographer Christopher Ross (“Trust”) and location scout Benjamin Bailey (“Show Dogs”). They give this fatuous drama its best elements: its tasteful gaudiness and its lurid, borderline-fantastical atmosphere, which could have carried the picture some ways were it not for the tinselly, discount-Martin McDonagh dialogue. It’s so bad a knockoff you can practically taste the lead.
The plot is hazy, but does take shape eventually. In her first scene, Annie, cigarette in hand, makes a deal with a priest — or just a raspy, demon-voiced man sitting in the padre’s side of the confessional. She’ll prove herself worthy of a stack of assassin’s assignments, or the man on the other side of the sin box can watch her die. Until the final five or so minutes, viewers will suffer through a similar level of narrative opacity.
Annie flirts aggressively with two of the three men who end up at the cafe where she works, seemingly alone, in the middle of the night. A professorial weenie, Bill (Simon Pegg), is the first to arrive. Dressed like Vincent Van Gogh in a red-flecked beard and a large, woolen overcoat, he reveals that he’s terminally ill, an admission that sends Annie into a dizzy spin about all the ways he could kill himself, and all the reasons why he should. The Manic Pixie Suicide Girl act is grating, and the film’s one good line is when Annie is finally called out on it.
The sarcastic server is kinder to the younger, taller, and more handsome of the two mercenaries who stop by the cafe while awaiting instructions for their next job. They exist mostly so that Annie can flaunt her sexual power: She tells hunky Alfred (Max Irons) to stay (“I need someone to butter my buns for”) and irascible Vince (Dexter Fletcher) to shoo. Already at each other’s throats after spending the last two weeks holed up in an apartment with each other, Annie becomes the willing Yoko of their strained partnership. Mike Myers co-stars as a train station janitor, his break from semi-retirement as wasted as Goldie Hawn’s in “Snatched.”
Most of the plot and character development in “Terminal” take the form of twists: grandiose and supremely dumb backstories that attempt to recontextualize Annie’s motivations into something resembling female righteousness. (Such last-minute reshuffling might have been more convincing if it weren’t for the gratuitous sexualization of the main character, or the fact that Robbie has the sole speaking female role in the film.)
“Terminal” gives audiences no reasons to treat it any differently than how Robbie likely will: Something to move on from.