Ian Swan (Bruce Willis) is a famed bounty hunter who has spent the last ten years of his life pursuing an escaped fugitive who is wanted for the cold-blooded murder of four FBI men. Swan has tracked his prey to Hawaii but, when he’s shot and falls into the ocean, Swan is presumed dead. Swan’s long-estranged son, Ryan (Blake Jenner), comes to Hawaii to try to track down the man who killed his father. He meets up with Ian’s former partner, Robbie Cole (Stephen Dorff), and also the only cop on the island who cares about justice, Savannah (Praya Lundberg). Reluctantly, Cole works with Ryan and discovers that Ian’s shooting is somehow connected to a shady businessman named Arlene Buckley (John Travolta). A real estate developer, Buckley is working hard to elect a man named Kane (Branscombe Richmond) to the U.S. Senate. Buckley’s plan also involves taking control of a part of the Island that the natives call Paradise City. Got all that?
2022’s Paradise City has been advertised as being a John Travolta/Bruce Willis film but make no mistake. Neither Travolta nor Willis get much screen time, though they both make an impression in the limited time that they do have. Stephen Dorff manages to steal every scene in which he appears, playing Robbie as a well-meaning guy who can’t help but be kind of a screw-up. That said, Dorff really isn’t in that much of the film either. Instead, the main star of the film is Blake Jenner. Jenner has the blandly affable screen presence of a low-key frat boy. That worked for him when he was in films like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! but it’s not exactly ideal for an action star. Whereas the best action stars feel as if they’re always ready for a fight, Jenner comes across as the guy who would be trusted to order the keg for the next party.
Instead of taking charge of the screen, Jenner finds himself overshadowed by the gorgeous Hawaiian scenery. Hawaii is the true star of Paradise City and, even when the film itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, Hawaii itself is always amazing to look at. In many ways, Paradise City feels like an extra-violent episode of Baywatch Hawaii. (The film’s Baywatch aesthetic is confirmed when Savannah wears a bikini to a crime scene.) Just as with that show, the beaches and the jungles and the waterfalls and the oceans are all so stunning that it’s tempting to give the film a pass on the fact that the plot never makes much sense and any genuine emotional stakes are pretty much non-existent.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore the plot because, for a low-budget B-movie, Paradise City takes itself way too seriously. It’s one thing for Ryan to be estranged from his father. It’s another thing for the film to feature flashbacks to Ryan’s childhood, in which we discover firsthand that Ian never understood Ryan. It’s also one thing to make Buckley a family man. It’s another thing try to create a clumsy parallel between the way that Buckley is raising his son and the way that Ian raised Ryan. As opposed to films like Gasoline Alley or the Detective Knight films, Paradise City seems to be trying too hard to be something that it isn’t. Instead of just embracing its pulpy style and trying to entertain, the film is determined to tug at the audience’s heartstrings and make a statement about evil land developers. The film forgets that, sometimes, just being entertaining is the best thing that a film can be.
This was one of the last films that Bruce Willis made before it was announced that he would be retiring from acting. Watching the film, it’s easy to tell that a stand-in was used for most of Willis’s action scenes. When Willis delivers the majority of his lines, it’s hard not to miss the wiseguy energy that used to be his trademark. That said, when Willis is acting opposite Travolta and Dorff, he shows a bit of his old spark. The two scenes in which he confronts John Travolta are the best in the film. For a few minutes, he seems like the Bruce Willis who we all remember and it’s hard not to get a bit emotional watching two talented (if often underappreciated) actors acting opposite each other for what will probably be the last time.
Paradise City is not a particularly memorable film and the overly complicated plot is next to impossible to follow but I am happy that the cast and the crew got to hang out in Hawaii for a bit. It’s a lovely place to visit.
It’s difficult to see stars we grew up loving reduced to this.
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