Sweet Girl (2021)
Family fights as one.
I actually like Jason Momoa’s mid-budget action movie presence. I’m happy the big guy gets to play in Atlantis or Arrakis from time to time — he’s a tsunami of charisma and can effortlessly anchor all the CGI spectacle in the world with his presence, which counts for a lot. Without that, you’re just watching pixels bounce off of other pixels to little emotional effect. Still, I think he functions best in roles where there’s little digital derring-do; there’s just him, preferably reducing some bad guys to a thin, warm paste, and you can really get a sense of him, both his magnetism and his sheer size (on the blue carpet at the Sydney Aquaman premiere I turned and found myself directly behind Momoa and another step would have been like walking into a brick wall — the guy is huuuuuuge).
So, when something like Sweet Girl comes down the pike, I’ll show up for it. Braven (2018) is probably the pinnacle in terms of what I’m after here, but I’ll even take something like Bullet to the Head (2012), whose main redeeming feature is that Momoa and Sylvester Stallone fight each other with fire axes in the climax. On the small screen, Frontier (2016) is your go-to, which sees Big Jase harrying the Hudson Bay Company as a mixed-descent rebel in colonial Canada. Frontier is on Netflix, and so is Sweet Girl, and if you’re given a choice (perhaps at gunpoint, under threat of a bullet to the head?), go with the former — at least you know what you’re getting.
Sweet Girl, by comparison, starts well before slowly revealing that we’ve kind of been sold a pig in a poke here — the film as viewed is not the film as promised, and while some twists or bait-and-switch maneuvers can be fun, recasting what we’ve seen before in a whole new and more edifying light, here it feels like a cheat — as though the writers (Philip Eisner of 1997’s Event Horizon and Gregg Hurwitz of 2017’s The Book of Henry) thought there wasn’t enough plot to go round in what ought to be a meat and potatoes action thriller and decided to throw a late-in-the-game curveball. But we’ll come back to that directly.
Directed by Frontier producer Brian Andrew Mendoza, Sweet Girl sees Momoa as ex-military dude Ray Cooper, a soft-spoken, gentle giant/absolute murder machine who is facing an enemy he can’t demolish with his bare hands: his wife Amanda’s (Adria Arjona) cancer. Medication exists that could help, but pharmaceutical CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) has pulled it from the market mere days before her course of treatment was due to kick off. Amanda dies, crushing Ray and his teen daughter, Rachel (Isabela Merced).
Revenge time, right? Jason Momoa on a roaring rampage of retribution against a Martin Shkreli-like pharma-bro strikes me as a good time, especially with the kid along to add some Lone Wolf and Cub notes. An initial attempt to make contact with a journalist winds up with the journo dead, Rachel unconscious, and Ray bleeding out on a train platform, but two years later (there is a lot of set up to get where we need to be in this one) Ray and Rachel are on the case, having stalked Keeley and laid their plans for payback. As they make their run against Keeley, his pet assassin Amos Santos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and anyone else who happens to get in the road, a couple of FBI agents (Lex Scott Davis and Michael Raymond-James) pick up the scent, while politician Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) hovers in the background.
And Momoa’s Ray has been hovering overhead, presumably, because he died on that train platform, a reveal at the third act turn that is supposed to pull the rug out from under us but instead leaves us scratching our heads at the possibility of Rachel unleashing all the mayhem we’ve just watched Ray drop on various poor fools for the first two-thirds of the film. Rachel is on a solo mission, it turns out, and all the mid-movie scenes with Momoa have been her hallucinating or imagining or … something.
It doesn’t work.
This sort of thing can work — Fight Club (1999) is the obvious example, but you should go look at that flick again and look at how much care director David Fincher puts into shoring up the reveal, ensuring that all the information you need is there, and has been all along, but the film has been encouraging you to look at it in the wrong way. There are still a few cheats, but the delivery and the payoff are handled so elegantly that it doesn’t matter. And there’s a thematic intent in play, too — Tyler Durden as the narrator’s id/masculinity/whatever you may so, section off and imagined as the hyper-virile leader of Project Mayhem. In Sweet Girl, it’s delivered almost like a jump scare and with as much impact — a shock in the moment that dissipates almost immediately, followed by the sneaking suspicion that we’ve been had.
It’s not Merced’s fault — she’s pretty great in the role and does everything that’s required of her to sell what is revealed to be her character’s duality. Momoa can take some stick, seeing as he’s a producer on this thing. But the essential issue is that a solid, straightforward action thriller became less than the sum of its parts because the creative team thought they were better than the genre they were working in. Sweet Girl’s big twist is clearly meant to elevate the material, but instead, it reduces what could have been a competent action programmer to a bit of a joke.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Sweet Girl is currently streaming on Netflix