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White Elephant Review

August 8, 2022 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
White Elephant Michael Rooker Image Credit: RLJE Films
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White Elephant Review  

White Elephant Review

Michael Rooker– Gabriel Tancredi
Bruce Willis– Arnold
Olga Kurylenko– Vanessa
Vadhir Derbez– Carlos
John Malkovich– Glen Follett
Michael Rose– Walter Koschek
Chris Cleveland– Daley
Ski Carr– Luis Velasquez
(check out the rest of the cast here)

Directed by Jesse V. Johnson
Screenplay by Erik Martinez and Jesse V. Johnson, with additional dialogue by Katherine Lee McEwan

Distributed by RLJE Films

Not Rated
Runtime– 96 minutes

Buy it here

Image Credit: RLJE Films

White Elephant, directed by the great Jesse V. Johnson, is a decent enough crime thriller with a great cast and moments of jaw dropping bloody violence. It isn’t as action oriented as you expect it to be considering Johnson’s stellar reputation as a top notch modern action director and recent movie output, it’s still a satisfying bit of genre moviemaking.

White Elephant stars Michael Rooker as Gabriel Tancredi, a badass former Marine turned mob enforcer who works for crime boss and old friend Arnold (Bruce Willis). In the midst of a mob war between Arnold’s gang, a Mexican cartel, and Russian organized crime and helping his partner Carlos (Vadhir Derbez) track down two cops, one a resourceful female cop who finds herself on the run from potential corrupt elements in the police (Vanessa, played by Olga Kurylenko), Tancredi begins questioning what he has done with his life. Tancredi is still very good at his job, but he isn’t sure that he can keep doing absolutely horrendous things for some of the worst people in the world. While doing some research into Vanessa’s background, Tancredi comes to a realization that he just can’t do Arnold’s bidding anymore and that he has to start living for himself. Tancredi also wants to try to live up to the promise that he made his wife before she died, that he would use his skills and aptitudes for good in the world. Will he be able to do that, though? Can Tancredi find a way to get out of the nasty life he’s lived for so long and excelled at?

For about the first hour or so of White Elephant I really thought the movie was going to be one of those crime thrillers that, for the lack of a better word, “glorifies” the organized crime world. If there was going to be any overarching conflict I thought it was going to be one of those “the new mob just doesn’t have the same sense of honor as the old mob” type deals, where Tancredi and Carlos would be vying for Arnold’s approval while trying to kill Vanessa. Carlos spends most of the movie screwing up every assignment Arnold gives him, with Tancredi showing up later on to fix what Carlos has failed at. But then the last half hour or so of the movie is spent showing us, just in case we didn’t get it before, that there is no honor in organized crime, that all of these people are terrible, and that if you don’t find a way out it will destroy your soul. I didn’t expect any of that. I also didn’t expect Michael Rooker to give such a sensitive performance as Tancredi. Yes, I figured that, out of all of the characters in the movie that Tancredi might show a bit of humanity at some point (a guy who visits his wife’s grave as often as Tancredi probably isn’t a full on psycho all of the time), but I figured that he would sort of come around towards the end of the movie and do what he always does, kill people for Arnold. Tancredi would never, ever be a good guy. It just wasn’t in the cards for him. But Tancredi makes a change towards the end of the movie and Rooker just knocks it out of the park. Rooker actually makes you like him and root for him. That’s hard to do, especially after what we see Tancredi do in service of Arnold, but Rooker manages to do it.

Image Credit: RLJE Films

White Elephant’s pacing is also a bit of a surprise. With the prospect of a mob war between three criminal gangs as a big part of the plot and the whole “Vanessa being chased down by Carlos” thing, I thought that White Elephant would move along at a break neck pace. While it doesn’t waste time, White Elephant is deliberate and takes its time to get to where it wants to go. And that’s a good strategy, as the pacing allows both Rooker and Kurylenko to breathe a bit in the middle of either doing horrible things or fighting to survive. This deliberate pacing also allows the movie’s action sequences to seem even more brutal than they are (and they are brutal as hell. You don’t want to be shot or stabbed in this movie because it just isn’t going to end well for you). The movie does peter out a bit at the end as it wraps up its various plot threads, but that slow down doesn’t really hurt the movie or make it less satisfying than had it ended with a bang. There’s one moment at the end that had it happened earlier in the movie it would have likely been loud and incredibly gory. Instead, it all goes down quickly and quietly and helps reinforce the idea that there really is no honor amongst these people.

And then there’s the violence, which is so goddamn brutal and nasty. We see a guy get shot in the face with a shotgun (and we actually see it happen up close and personal), multiple stab wounds that gush fountains of blood, a guy get decapitated via a machine gun attack, and a bullet to the neck that will make you wince (well, you may end up laughing for a moment after one particular line during this scene, but then you will be glad that it isn’t you bleeding out on a couch after thinking you’re a faster draw than your opponent when you’re so clearly not).

It will be interesting to see how audiences react to Bruce Willis’ performance as Arnold, the mob boss Rooker’s Tancredi works for. Willis has been the subject of intense ridicule online for several years now, working on all sorts of low budget, direct-to-video movies, typically in a small role and not seeming all that engaged in what he was doing. Now that we know about his aphasia diagnosis, will he still get the same notices? I hope that, at least when it comes to White Elephant, people talk about the truly badass scene where Willis’ Arnold, after being shot in the arm during an assassination attempt that kills his wife, grabs a machine gun and walks through a hail of gunfire to take out multiple people. It’s exactly the kind of thing you want an action star like Willis do at least one more time. Director Johnson made it happen, and for that we should all be grateful.

Image Credit: RLJE Films

Olga Kurylenko does a fantastic job as Vanessa, the cop on the run from mob killers and who can’t trust anyone. It seems kind of weird at first that, with her character’s background and language ability that she’s just a cop and not an FBI agent, but Kurylenko makes it believable (she’s really dedicated to the law and isn’t cynical, which is a nice surprise). Kurylenko also has some cool action scenes, mostly taking on multiple bad guys in firefights and somehow surviving. She does get to do a nifty knife sequence towards the end of the movie (you just don’t want to mess with Vanessa).

Vadhir Derbez does a great job as Carlos, the new mob guy that Tancredi has to work with and try to teach how to be a top notch mob killer. Derbez makes Carlos cocky and arrogant but he never overdoes it. Derbez actually has respect for Tancredi up until the end, even though he thinks that, because he’s younger, he can take out the older and creakier Tancredi at any moment. The movie also mentions quite often that Carlos was a scout sniper in the army and that he can kill anyone for any reason, which gives Carlos a deadlier reputation than he probably deserves. Carlos will kill a guy at the drop of a hat, sure, but there’s also a certain hesitation in what he does while on the job that makes you think that, deep down, Carlos isn’t as cold blooded as he wants everyone to think he is. He’s still trying to figure himself out.

And then there’s John Malkovich, who does an okay job as Glen Follett, Arnold’s lawyer. Malkovich really doesn’t get to do anything beyond meet with Rooker’s Tancredi and eventually distance himself from Arnold because of the escalating mob violence. Malkovich does get a nice moment where he talks about ancient Greeks, but he doesn’t get to do anything fun like Willis (how awesome would it have been if Malkovich also grabbed a machine gun at some point in the movie and killed a bunch of people? Or stabbed someone in the neck with a pen or something? That would have rocked). Maybe we’ll see Malkovich do something big and bold in the eventual White Elephant 2? Because that should absolutely happen.

I liked White Elephant quite a bit. I was expecting a different kind of movie from what director Jesse V. Johnson delivered, but it works more than it doesn’t and is a fine way to spend 96 minutes. It’s something you should absolutely check out if you’re a Rooker fan, a Willis completist, or a Jesse V. Johnson adherent. It’s worth your time.

See White Elephant. See it, see it, see it. White Elephant is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Video on Demand.

So what do we have here?

Dead bodies: At least 30.

Explosions: Yes.

Nudity?: None.

Doobage:An oddly serene opening titles sequence, multiple gun silhouettes that eventually form the head of a white elephant, a mausoleum, sparkly shoes, gun in a newspaper, sniper gun attack, a shaky hand, exploding building, horse riding, a briefcase, martial arts practice, bullet to the head, off screen body dismemberment, burying body parts inside suitcases on the side of the road, multiple old pictures, attempted newspaper reading, a big shootout, shotgun blast to the face and we see it, attempted wound fixing, corrupt cop hooey, multiple “meetings with the boss,” police file hooey, a white mustang, attempted assassination, machine gun hooey, hotel hooey, a guy eating a giant sandwich, knife to the neck, a brutal fight where blood spurts everywhere from a guy’s neck wound, serious dead body burning, urn removal, another shootout, shooting through a wall in order to kill a guy directly behind it, hotel manager hooey, a shocking rescue, drink making, bullshit about a bathroom being a panic room, attempted meeting, bullet to the neck, yet another shootout, hand-to-hand brawling, knife slicing, knife to the heart, knife to the neck, big machine gun hooey, decapitation via machine gun, grenade attack, a silent killing, and spreading ashes.

Kim Richards? None.

Gratuitous: Michael Rooker, Michael Rooker walking through a mausoleum, John Malkovich, Michael Rooker talking to John Malkovich, sparkly shoes, a gun wrapped in a newspaper, Olga Kurylenko, Bruce Willis, John Malkovich talking about the ancient Greeks, weird looking takeout food, Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer reference, Michael Rooker talking about fear, shotgun blast to the face, Michael Rooker paying for lunch with a credit card, Olga Kurylenko using a UV flashlight and finding blood on the wall, Michael Rooker stealing Bruce Willis’ drink, Bruce Willis using a machine gun, Bruce Willis voice that clearly isn’t Bruce Willis, a Lee Marvin double feature on the marquee of a movie theater, trying to figure out how to put a gun in the front of your pants and not making it look like you have a giant penis, Olga Kurylenko cleaning her gun, Michael Rooker talking about a bathtub, Michael Rooker drinking tequila, decapitation via machine gun, and spreading ashes.

Best lines: “Happy Birthday, baby,” “They really don’t like men like us anymore,” “He fucking made us! I’m bringing him in!,” “I think the Russians will be happy with the Mexicans out of the way,” “I can feel it in my bones. Getting old is a bitch,” “Who are you? What do you want?,” “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!,” “I’m gonna put a cap in this fucker,” “You don’t go chasing the devil,” “I’d trade my soul to be twenty again,” “Give me the fucking gun!,” “So your ancient Greeks don’t believe in eye for an eye?,” “I want them to suffer,” “You should have just shot him,” “I’m telling you, he’s losing it,” “Bring me that bastard’s head!,” “There’s no softer pillow than a clean conscience,” “Caused a lot of trouble, senorita,” “Like a fucking western, huh? Like a fucking western,” “What a waste,” and “There you go. Stay hydrated.”

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
White Elephant, directed by the great Jesse V. Johnson, is a decent enough crime thriller with a great cast and moments of jaw dropping bloody violence. It isn’t as action oriented as you expect it to be considering Johnson’s stellar reputation as a top notch modern action director and recent movie output, it’s still a satisfying bit of genre moviemaking. Michael Rooker gives a badass yet sensitive performance as a mob enforcer with a crisis of conscience, while Olga Kurylenko does a fine job as a cop on the run from killers. Bruce Willis also gets one more great cinematic moment as a vengeful mob boss. While it doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, White Elephant is a fine piece of genre moviemaking. You should absolutely check it out. See it, see it, see it. White Elephant is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Video on Demand.