White Elephant is not that bad. In fact, for a B-action movie it’s actually pretty good. If nothing else, it featured one of Michael Rooker’s best performances.
It’s important to start out this review by making that clear because I think a lot of people are going to be tempted to judge this film based solely on the fact that this was one of the last films that Bruce Willis made before his family announced that he would be retiring from acting due to health reasons. When the big story was published in the L.A. Times about Willis’s recent struggles and how those struggles led to him accepting countless roles in straight-to-video fare like American Siege, several people who worked on White Elephant were quoted, with many saying that Willis always did his best but that he was definitely not the Willis that they all remembered. The film’s director, action maestro Jesse V. Johnson, publicly stated that he would not make another film with Willis because “the arrangement felt wrong” and that Willis deserved a better end to his career.
And it must be said that Bruce is obviously not himself in White Elephant. As with many of his recent films, Bruce is cast as a villain in this piece. He’s a crime lord named Arnold and he spends the majority of his time taking meetings and giving order to his underlings. Eventually, he does pick up a gun and fire it but there’s very little of the cocky attitude and swaggering charisma that made Bruce Willis into a superstar. He still has the physical presence to play a tough guy. Bruce Willis still looks intimidating and the film uses him sparingly, never allowing us to spend too much time focusing on how different he seems from the Bruce Willis who starred in Die Hard and Pulp Fiction. One never gets the feeling that Bruce is being deliberately exploited in White Elephant, that alone sets it above some of the other recent films that have featured Willis. But, at the same time, Arnold is a fairly generic bad guy.
Fortunately, the majority of the film follows Michael Rooker in the role of a far more interesting criminal. Rooker plays Gabe Tancredi, a former Marine turned hitman. He’s about as ruthless as they come but he still has enough of a code of ethics that he realizes that he can’t kill a police officer named Vanessa (Olga Kurylenko), no matter how much Arnold wants her dead. Ordered to kill her, Gabe instead protects her, which leads to Arnold sending all of his men after them. It leads to several shootouts and explosions as Gabe puts his life at risk to finally do the right thing.
It’s a simple story but it’s told well. Jesse V. Johnson started out as a stuntman and he clearly knows his way around an action scene and the final shootout in genuinely exciting. The film is also helped by Michael Rooker, who brings a good deal of unexpected depth to the role of Gabe. Even though Rooker obviously knew that White Elephant was a B-movie, he still refuses to phone in a single minute of his performance and, instead, he turns Gabe into a surprisingly complex killer. Gabe’s relationships with his agent Glen (John Malkovich), his protegee Carlos (Vadhir Debrez), and Vanessa are all genuinely interesting. I especially liked the early scenes between Rooker and Debrez, in which the two actors wonderfully play off of each other and we get the feeling Carlos is almost like a son to Gabe. Of course, being genre savvy, we know that Carlos is eventually going to be assigned to take Gabe down but, because their friendship seemed so real, we find ourselves dreading that confrontation. White Elephant is a B-movie but, much like last year’s Corrective Measures and Gasoline Alley, it’s a B-movie with a heart.