By Lynn Venhaus
This trashy excuse for a crime-thriller wants us to believe it is set in St. Louis, but there is a total absence of any markers that could identify our fair city. One character does arrange a meeting in Forest Park, but they mention a “K-Town”?

OK, the cars did have Missouri license plates, so kudos for that. Otherwise, it’s a generic framing of a seedy “inner-city” area that has seen better days. There isn’t even a ubiquitous shot of the Gateway Arch just to pretend where we are. Instead, we get depictions of mean streets and government housing.

The tourism bureau won’t be getting a boost from visitors because this unrelenting grim and cliché-driven film is unappealing and not worth 91 minutes of your time. It was filmed in Norfolk, Va., and the dim and harsh lighting does the atmosphere no favors – even if it is going for true grit to emphasize our city’s chaotic crime numbers.

Social worker Parker Jode (Shea Wigham), assigned to the care of Ashley (Taegan Burns), the daughter of single mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn), intervenes when the dad, Mike (Zach Avery) returns from prison. Because dad is involved in drug dealing and a robbery, he is putting his family in danger.

As for the St. Louis location, Italian-born director Michele Civetta is quoted as saying: “Setting the film in a locale like St. Louis was a metaphor for the crossroads of America today. A gilded age town that has fallen on harder times, outgrown its original destiny as the Gateway city to the west, now a playground for drug trafficking and interstate contraband resulting in gang violence. The city conjures the ethos of a lawless environment presided over by a dysfunctional corrupt government administration that has really forgotten the everyday person.”

OK, then. Let the outrage ensue.

Three men are credited with this macho tough-guy screenplay: Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas, and the director, Michele Civetta.

The director aspires to be a throwback to those hard-boiled B-movies from the 1970s, like John Cassavetes’ “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and John Huston’s “Fat City” – the lead character is even a failed boxer! — but he does not achieve any sort of emotional truth with such stereotypical characters.

Civetta’s experience includes many commercials and music videos and was nominated for an Emmy for his NBC commercial “Halloween Today” in 2016. His last film was “Agony” released in 2020, and this film wrapped up right before the pandemic lockdown happened.

Civetta is trying to make a statement about how children are affected by the bad behavior of their parents, and that their actions have consequences, which of course is noble because there are so many young victims, and the human toll is enormous. While it’s obvious here, a better vehicle might have elevated the cause.

The protagonist is a social worker whose job is checking on the welfare of kids in less-than-ideal home lives. Shea Wigham, a character actor who is familiar to audiences after being in a long list of movies and TV shows for the past 20 years, rises to the occasion as a world-weary flawed guy who is driven by his checkered past, including growing up in foster homes. You’ve seen him as a detective in “Joker” and this summer in “F9.”

Parker is an anti-hero who champions his own sense of justice while spending lonely nights drinking too much at a dive bar. This guy has a lot of issues but the script only scratches at the surface.

He cares too much about keeping the kids safe that he meets on the job, and is drawn into a dangerous web when he’s checking on Ashley, the daughter of night casino worker Dahlia. Her husband, Mike, is in prison, and comes back in their lives when he’s paroled. He is as mean as a junkyard dog, signaling trouble ahead.

He rejoins his group of drug-dealing thugs, led by Frank Grillo as “Duke,” in yet another swaggering tough-guy role and wearing a ludicrous pimp hat. Antagonizing a Mexican drug cartel,  they botch a robbery – and the heat is on, from both the cops and the nefarious cartel goons.

As villain Mike, Zach Avery has nowhere to go, for his character is one-note and has zero redeeming qualities.

Olivia Munn doesn’t embarrass herself in the concerned mom role trapped in an abusive relationship, and a bright spot is young actress Taegan Burns as daughter Ashley.

Dear old dad puts a stash in his daughter’s backpack – in effect making her a drug mule, which starts a chain of mayhem. Parker takes the women to his estranged father’s house to hide.

Two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern plays the elder Jode, Marcus, a Vietnam veteran and former jazz musician, as a grizzled survivor. He knows he messed up but isn’t all that apologetic about putting his son in the foster care system as a youth. It’s a showy part, with the requisite whisky-fueled late-night talk between father and son before the criminals come calling.

As the plot becomes more contrived, full of bad ideas, one hopes for some character redemption, but there is no deliverance from evil. These are all hardened people – and perhaps we could have understood motivations, but it wasn’t going to happen with this being so heavy-handed. The final scene, meant to be somber yet hopeful, is almost laughable.

A Charles Dickens quote condemning bad parenting begins the film and statistics about foster children ends it.

Dark and depressing, this movie has little to recommend it. Not even a shot of the Arch gleaming in sunlight could have saved it.

Shea Wigham and Taryn Manning

“The Gateway” is a 2021 crime thriller directed by Michele Civetta and starring Shea Wigham, Olivia Munn, Zach Avery, Bruce Dern, Frank Grillo, Taryn Manning, Mark Boone Junior and Taegan Burns. Rated: R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug use, some sexual content and nudity and its run time is 1 hour and 31 minutes. In theaters, digital and Video on Demand on Sept. 3; on DVD/Blu-Ray Sept. 7. Lynn’s Grade: D

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