Review by Daniel Lima
A film directed by David Ayer, an auteur known for kinetic two-fisted tales of gruff men of action, that stars Jason Statham, a gruff man of action known for kinetic two-fisted tales, seems like a match made in heaven. A film directed by David Ayer and written by Kurt Wimmer, whose name appears on the credits of some truly dire misfires, sounds like torture (though they have previously collaborated on Street Kings). Yet The Beekeeper is a great action movie not only because of the quality of the set pieces and the charisma of its star but also because of the efficacy and control displayed in its tight script.
Statham plays an inconspicuous beekeeper who lives on the estate of an elderly retiree. When she commits suicide after being scammed, He reveals himself to be — what else — a ruthlessly efficient killer, long retired from a clandestine organization known as the Beekeepers. He goes on a quest for revenge, with a pair of FBI agents hot on his trail as he blazes his way to the top of a vast conspiracy.
Statham is a fascinating screen presence. He has an incredibly limited range, able to affect a working-class, no-nonsense tough guy persona, back it up with genuine physical ability, and precious little else. Yet unlike so many action stars who are at the mercy of the material they're given, he always manages to shine, as if his sheer force of personality is enough to make him compelling no matter what hand he's dealt. It's no surprise, then, that despite spending most of the runtime here glowering — even though he has charitably one page's worth of dialogue — he makes the most of every second and every line he gets. Whether delivering a one-liner before a beat down or dropping some bee references, you want to cheer after every word he says.
Even putting the wonderful lead aside, this is a strong ensemble, gifted with unique and distinct characters to make their own. Josh Hutcherson chews up the scenery as a douchebag tech bro billionaire; Jeremy Irons lights up as the stern authority figure attempting to fix the hornet's nest Statham kicks up. Emmy Racer-Lampman plays a persistent federal agent who picks up a book on bee trivia that she cannot help but read from. All these characters and performances have idiosyncrasies that make them stand out from material that could otherwise be rote.
It also helps to have a budget and a director with a sharp eye. This might not be the most visually striking film, but it's clear that some thought went into building out this world. The contrast between Statham's rugged outfits and the fineries of his adversaries, the neon-lit glass house of the fraud operation, and the ornate and sprawling estate at the climax — each has a deliberately crafted feel. Perhaps it speaks to a sad state of affairs when it's exciting to watch a big theatrical release where it feels like choices are being made, that what you see on screen is deliberately crafted to evoke a specific mood and communicate something about the characters, but that's where we are at.
Thankfully, this does not stop when the action kicks off. Ayer and Statham are both proven talents in the genre, and with Jeremy Marinas as fight coordinator (who, among many credits, was Statham’s fight coordinator on Fast X), it’s no surprise that this is a solid showing. It makes a world of difference when a director is able to shoot an action scene without resorting to extensive doubling. So, there is a level of clarity and complexity to the set pieces here that is invigorating to see in a theater. There is a pace and rhythm to every bit of action, with characters navigating the environment and using it to their advantage in organic, exciting ways, with each fight and shootout building up to one of the most impressive of Statham’s career. That this can deliver that, decades into his career, is a tremendous feat.
The most impressive part about The Beekeeper, however, is the script. “It knows what is” readily comes to mind while watching the film — a phrase that denotes a work that lacks pretensions of something greater and only seeks to engage an audience on the basest possible level. Too often, this is misapplied to action movies with an air of bravado or boisterous energy, even if they fail to generate momentum, deliver solid action, or have memorable characters because they’re “so dumb they’re fun.” This is a milieu Kurt Wimmer is very familiar with.
The storytelling here, however, is so precise and refined that it cannot simply be attributed to the cast and director. The protagonist is a violent force of nature but lacks personality as written, so instead, the supporting characters get a variety of ticks and eccentricities that make the world more colorful. The powerful secret organization is a well-worn trope, so they’re given a ridiculous conceit — yes, all these agents are actually trained beekeepers — and the characters make constant bee-related allusions, parallels, and puns. Despite the quips, this doesn’t have the ironic remove that many modern blockbusters have, actively engaging with the emotional stakes of the characters and giving the fallout of Statham’s rampage the level of weight and importance it should deserve.
Most telling, there is an actual escalation of those stakes. The first action scene doesn’t come until roughly a half hour into the film, with everything before that merely building the mystique behind the main character. Like the action, the nature of the criminal enterprise he is attacking slowly reveals itself to be grander and more insidious than one could anticipate, culminating in a ludicrous reveal in the best way possible. All the while, the narrative remains lean and focused, with none of the fat that plagues many an action-thriller of this ilk. For something so disciplined to come from the screenwriter of Expend4bles is simply astounding.
The one flaw in the writing is how conservative its horizons ultimately are. The Beekeepers are positioned as guardians of the social order, dispatched whenever something disturbs “The Hive.” Much is said about how the villains’ machinations represent a rot infecting our society, and the story seems to be edging towards a very strong anti-establishment statement concerning how powerful institutions collude with one another to denigrate the lowly workers. Just as soon as that seems to be where the movie is going, it pulls back, avoiding a substantial critique of how oppressive and exploitative our society is designed to be. An American studio project embracing establishment politics and preaching that there’s nothing wrong with society on a fundamental level is not a shock. Still, considering that the film hints at being something more, it can’t help but register as a disappointment.
Despite that, The Beekeeper is a rousing and exhilarating time, a no-frills, pulpy genre movie that, yes, knows exactly what it is and delivers exactly what you want. If this represents what the rest of the year has in store, 2024 looks very bright.
The Beekeeper hits theaters January 12.