By Lynn Venhaus
A ridiculous bargain-bin action movie that could have been written by chimps, “Pursuit” is comparable to a later going-through-the-motions episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” only devoid of any personality.

The plot goes something like this: Detective Mike Breslin (Jake Manley) crosses paths with Rick Calloway (Emile Hirsch), a ruthless hacker who’s trying to save his kidnapped wife from a drug cartel. When Calloway escapes from police custody, Breslin joins forces with a no-nonsense cop to reclaim his prisoner.

We have an assortment of assembly-line lawmen – crooked and clean, a shaggy undercover detective that could be Kato Kaelin’s twin brother, a female police captain who brings coffee to her team in the field and frets about the psychological toll being a cop takes, a lady sheriff that’s tough by day and fun at night, evil rich old white guys, pretty young wives either kidnapped or murdered, cartoonish henchmen, hulking ‘yes’ men, and a hacker “who knows many things,” one thug says to another. Lots o’ thugs of various layers of grime get whacked.

Like everyone else whose livelihood’s been interrupted by a global pandemic, actors need to work. And apparently, there is a market for low-grade movies as long as bullets fly and wads of cash are scattered in video-game-type action. Only, the actors must be real people, not avatars.

This lowbrow movie looks like a first effort from a college student who got his friends together for a class project. As one who sees a number of student films per year, this is not to besmirch those efforts, because many are sincere. This enterprise, however, is not. Everything about this film looks cheap.

With name recognition and previous hits, John Cusack, the lovable unconventional hero of “Say Anything,” “Being John Malkovich” and “High Fidelity,” headlines a cast that features two former heartthrobs from the earlier polyester era – William Katt, best known as Carrie’s prom date and “The Greatest American Hero” on TV, and Andrew Stevens, who also produced this burning heap o’ trash, a modern hyphenate.

Stevens, a “Star of Tomorrow” designee, was a familiar face in movies and TV in the 1970s and 1980s, including “Dallas” and “Hollywood Wives.” Later, he directed his mother, Stella Stevens, in four films and made four films with Shannon Tweed. He’s produced more than 180 movies.

Katt attempts to be sincere as an Arkansas State Trooper – named Taye Biggs! — who thinks something rotten is afoot and Stevens is Frank Diego, the evil local kingpin calling the shots in a drug cartel.

But Cusack’s Calloway has got people too, surrounding him, feeding him incoherent lines that don’t advance the plot, which seems to be an afterthought. Do we ever find out what he does? He’s barely in this name-above-the-title exercise.

One would hope Cusack’s not yet past his prime, for he was outstanding as Brian Wilson in “Love and Mercy” in 2014 but has sadly been reduced to D-list projects in recent years, not counting his cameo in “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

Filmed in Little Rock, with cheap shots of a big city masquerading as New York City, where our undercover detective Mike Breslin (Jake Manley, the Kato Kaelin lookalike) works, we have mostly deadly confrontations with bullets zooming in slow-motion. It’s as if a camera guy was mesmerized by pulling that off, so they rely on it as their money shot.

Most of the acting is laughable, especially what-the-what? Emile Hirsch as a tatted-up hacker with scary eyes. His wife’s been kidnapped and his son, played by his real-life child Valor, is staying with grandpa (that would be Cusack, as Jack Calloway).

In the movie’s first scene, Hirsch is staring quizzically at a computer screen and punching keys, and not much is elevated after that. What time period are we in, exactly, because the technology looks really old, especially for someone known as a ‘hacker.’ “He knows things!” (One of the horrendously bad actors playing a drug dealer says in a hushed but menacing tone. Thank you, Bonzo, for that pithy line).

We don’t find out much about Rick Calloway, or why his dad thinks he’s expendable, or what is it that he knows. He’s running around, shooting up places, being pursued, getting arrested, making a deal, and then – of course – that goes horribly awry.

The film’s saving grace is actress Elizabeth Faith Ludlow, who plays Zoe Carter, a small-town sheriff, with some gumption. She’s acted in such high-profile series as the recent “Peacemaker” as Keeya and “The Walking Dead” as Arat. Here, she appears to be the smartest person in the movie.

The connections to characters seem lost in this scattershot exercise. Maybe it’s better we are left in the dark, because not much makes sense. And you certainly don’t need to spend brain cells trying to figure out the basics.

Director Brian Skiba apparently works a lot in the B-movie genre, with such films as “Deadly Excursion,” “Left for Dead,” “Anatomy of Deception” and “Slaughter Creek” among his oeuvre. His biggest hit was the Ryan Phillippe-led “The 2nd” in 2020. He also has helmed multiple Christmas movies, like “Merry Ex Mas,” “Defending Santa” and “Beverly Hills Christmas.”

Someone is obviously paying him to stitch these movies together – and write them! Skiba co-wrote “Pursuit” with two other people. Yes, three screenwriters are listed on this by-the-numbers effort, and they are not named Cheeta, J. Fred Muggs or Lancelot Link.

Dawn Bursteen, executive producer whose past credits include “Last Shoot Out” and “Catch the Bullet,” doesn’t push the envelope. Neither does first-time feature writer Ben Fiore, previously known for such short films as “Appointment with Death” and “The Interrogation.”

“Pursuit” serves little purpose other than to provide work for people in the entertainment industry. But it’s depressing to see such likable performers as Cusack, Hirsch and Katt reduced to such ludicrous roles.

You need to halt before “Pursuit” catches fire. Of all the junky releases that are passed off in winter, this may be the worst one yet this year. And it’s not even worth watching for unintended laughs.

“Pursuit” is a 2022 action film directed by Brian Skiba and starring Emile Hirsch, John Cusack, Jake Manley, William Katt, Andrew Stevens and Elizabeth Faith Ludlow. Its runtime is 1 hour, 35 minutes. In theaters, on demand and digital on Feb. 18. Lynn’s Grade: D-.

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