There’s certainly no lack of ambition behind writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s third feature. A young woman, Mona Lisa Lee (Jun Jong-seo) escapes a secure facility and has to survive in the neon-drenched fleshpots of the French Quarter. She has telekinetic powers but limited street smarts, having been imprisoned for many years. Caustic 'tart with a heart' Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson) takes Mona Lisa under her wing and a local cop (Craig Robinson) is on her tail.
That’s pretty much the entire plot, save a friendship that Lee develops with Belle’s eleven year-old son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), both of them frustrated with their respective stations in life. One immediate question as Lee escapes in the opening scenes is why she didn’t use her powers to break free years earlier? There’s also the mystery of where her powers came from, and more generally, what her backstory is. We never really find out.
Mona Lisa Lee is drawn in the vein of an X-Men mutant, or Eleven from Stranger Things. She's a detached, quasi-alien being, though without any biographical insights, it’s hard to root for her beyond just wanting an underdog/outsider to win. We know even less about Robinson’s Officer Harold, save that he’s back on the job the day after getting shot in the leg. Is that a fair representation of NOPD’s work ethic? I’ll diplomatically defer judgment there. Also, he begins the movie as a uniformed beat cop, but spends the rest of his time on screen as a plain-clothes detective, so it’s unclear what his actual job is.
Parts of New Orleans are evocatively and atmospherically rendered, such as the drunken chaos of Bourbon Street and the sulphur-washed corners of Esplanade Avenue, lit by buzzing streetlamps, where Lee finds her main ally (a likable hoodlum called ‘Fuzz’. Played by Ed Skrein). Locals might feel a little disoriented as characters walk down one street only to emerge elsewhere, but that’s nit-picking.
The city is teased as a character, and so there’s scenes like the obligatory consultation with a voodoo priestess, Robinson getting mad that all she can offer is spells and potions, although I’m not really sure what he was expecting by going to her. You came to a voodoo practitioner for help and...she suggests voodoo. Kind of with the priestess on this one.
There are some script elements that feel like they were filler at the time of writing and then just never got replaced. The hospital is just called the ‘Home for Mentally Insane Adolescents’, the strip club is called ‘The Panty Drop’, both of which seem like top-of-the-head ideas that were just not rewritten.
It’s a very stylized and color-saturated movie, and there are some fun set pieces, but I feel like it should have leaned into the humor more. As much as I love Craig Robinson as a comedic talent, I’m not sure he has the gravitas for a grizzled cop, but then we find out so little about these characters that maybe it doesn't matter. IMHO, a bit more schlock and self-aware goofiness might have made for a fun ride.
It’s a cinematic curiosity that locals might like as they recognize the real-life locations (including a tense denouement at the old airport, RIP), and the leads are charismatic, if doggedly one-dimensional. A few more wry smiles and a little more color to the character’s lives might have elevated this Mona Lisa more towards a masterpiece, but if a low-stakes portrait against a familiar backdrop works for you, then you might still like this New Orleans caper. (PO)
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