There’s nothing really original about White Elephant.
But that doesn’t stop it from being both thoroughly entertaining and genuinely captivating as the crime action thriller is elevated by a fine leading performance from Michael Rooker.
He plays Gabriel Tancredi, a widower and former Marine who now works for mob boss Arnold Solomon (Bruce Willis).
Over the past few years, Tancredi has been mentoring fellow assassin Carlos Garcia (Vadhir Derbez). So when Garcia’s latest assassination is witnessed by two police officers — Vanessa Flynn (Olga Kurylenko) and Walter Koschek (Michael Rose) — Tancredi is tasked with murdering them to ensure their silence.
Killing the pair turns out to be much more complicated than either Solomon or Tancredi anticipated and the closer Tancredi gets to Flynn, the more similarities he sees between her and his dead wife.
While White Elephant’s co-writer and director Jesse V Johnson has been overseeing films since 1998, he is mostly known in Hollywood for his work as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator on huge blockbusters. These have included collaborations with Tom Cruise on Mission: Impossible III and War of the Worlds, Arnold Schwarzenegger on Total Recall and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Mark Wahlberg on Planet of the Apes.
White Elephant’s set pieces don’t come close to matching those in the aforementioned films, but Johnson deploys a confidence and care behind the camera that means the scenes easily outdo the action in B-movies of a similar budget.
Rather than these sequences feeling rushed, Johnson is able to create some nice tension and surprise within them, too. He’s also able to incorporate some perfectly placed gore and bloodshed that makes each fight seem authentic.
But while these enthralling scenes and a mesmeric performance from Rooker — who manages to seamlessly weave his own menace — add charm and humour into the film, it’s not without its flaws.
Even though it is less than 90 minutes long, White Elephant repeatedly flirts with becoming dull and repetitive around the halfway mark. Ultimately, it saves itself by making some genuinely surprising twists and turns that set it up for its over-the-top and ultra-violent finale, which delivers exactly what its audience of action fans will want.
However, the most problematic aspect of White Elephant is the appearance of Willis. Back in March, it was revealed that he had been diagnosed with aphasia, and White Elephant is one of the last films he's starring in. Audiences will instantly be able to see Willis’ limitations in the film, and he’s not helped by the addition of some terrible post-production dialogue that sounds nothing like him.
That being said, there is still one action scene where the Die Hard star showcases the presence and cool that made him so beloved. Thankfully, White Elephant is also at least an improvement on the raft of woeful direct-to-video action movies that Willis has been making since 2015.
As well as Rooker and Johnson’s strong efforts, composer Sean Murray also deserves credit for creating a contemplative but stirring score. And while Johnson and Martinez’s script never rises above mediocre, it has less dialogue and exposition than its counterparts, and puts more trust in the performances of its actors, too.
This allows for Rooker, Derbez, Kurylenko, and even John Malkovich, who pops up for a few scenes, to build genuine dynamics. The result is a film where the action is engaging and you believe the characters, their motivations and the stakes. Which is much more than other films in the genre of a similar budget and tone come close to achieving.