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Term Life

Universal // R // July 5, 2016
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted July 11, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Action-crime thrillers tend to throw in solutions to problems at the drop of a hat: a conveniently placed weapon, a getaway car, a stranger who can hide someone or something on short notice. This tends to be an infuriating but sometimes necessary thing to keep the suspense moving forward, and it doesn't hurt that the introduction of those devices adds a bit of surprise energy to their respective films, even if a little doubtfulness gets tossed in as well. Director Peter Billingsley -- yeah, that Peter Billingsley -- would probably prefer for his latest directorial effort, Term Life, to be remember for more than "rational thinking", perhaps for the father-daughter bond built between the main characters or the gray-area corruption of cops underneath the manhunt for them. The featureless execution of its more dramatic undertones redirects attention to the little things that this limited release (practically direct-to-video) flick intermittently does right, producing a forgettable cat-and-mouse thriller that at least prides itself in remembering to foreshadow.

Term Life stars Vince Vaughn as Nick Barrow, an Atlanta-based career criminal who doesn't actively do any of the criminal activity himself. He's an architect for heists, complex and elaborate ones that require precise timing and awareness of circumstances, to which he maps out and passes on to paying individuals. One of his jobs, despite going off without a hitch, lands him in hot water with a significant crime lord, who, naturally, discovers that Barrow has a daughter, Cate (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he gets to spend very little time with considering his profession. In her rebellious teenage stage and coping with an alcoholic mother, Cate finds herself whisked away by Barrow before the cartel's underlings can get to her first. While on the run and hiding, the father-daughter Barrow team run into difficulties identifying with one another, which they'll need to overcome if they're going to stay two steps ahead of both the criminals and the shady cops after them -- led by Bill Paxton's Detective Keenan -- until Nick lands on a solution.

Gruff narration from Nick Barrow and black-and-white flashbacks frame Term Life in mundane trappings of the crime-thriller genre. From conversations about heists conducted in very public spots to predicting red-light patterns and cellphones going off as convenient distractions, it's full of easy moving parts, driven by a low-key, almost introverted performance from Vince Vaughn as the heist architect. Sporting a distracting haircut that's humorously addressed early on in the film, Vaughn works alongside a surprisingly robust cast filling out the people whom Nick Barrow interacts with as he sinks deeper into hot water, from Jonathan Banks as Barrow's helpful mentor and Jon Favreau as a bizarre hoarder of an informant to Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in cursory supporting roles. The validity of the cast props up its mundane thrills, put into motion by Vaughn in ways that would've benefitted from more of the gristle he brought to the second season of True Detective, where he's instead an unremarkable sympathetic criminal underneath the mop hairdo.

Once Cate enters the picture, Term Life refocuses its attention to the troubled relationship between an absent criminal father and his defiant, angry daughter, and that kills much of the film's momentum. The Barrows are on the run, sure, but their plan doesn't have them moving around very much, leaving other events happening outside their hiding -- the pressure placed on others by the vicious crime lord; the maneuvers of a corrupt batch of detectives -- to build the tension, which comes and goes. Instead, Vince Vaughn and Hailee Steinfeld engage in relationship-building that fits somewhere between the criminal daughter molding in Matchstick Men with the volatile guardianship of a minor in Leon: The Professional, with a dose of teenage angst thrown in for good measure. This might've worked had Vaughn and Steinfeld shared the right kind of chemistry, yet their evolution from a family at loggerheads to a tighter, understanding bond merely goes through the predictable motions amid clothing disputes, carnival rides, and Nick explaining to his daughter how to do what he does.

The framework of an engaging crime-drama exists underneath Term Life, including a batch of villains whose motivations tiptoe along the line of justifiable and conflicted immorality, none of whom make very many outright poor judgment calls. Director Billingsley combines that antagonist angle with a smart grasp on dropping clues as to how characters might get in and out of situations, whether it's directing attention to a potential weapon or introducing minor characters who do somewhat harebrained things for the people that ask. There's a noticeable amount of care here put into crossing Ts and dotting Is, igniting a few bursts of intelligent, modest bursts of action. Unfortunately, with the cluster of gunfights and car chases against the backdrop of Atlanta -- and cute nods to the town liberally thrown in for some flavor -- Term Life never puts those mechanical smarts to work in a way that'd craft a fresh take on this familiar story, lacking the personality or the vigor to better appreciate its due diligence to credibility.

Video and Audio:

Term Life sneaks onto Blu-ray form Universal Home Entertainment in a suitably sturdy 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment, which sports natural, slightly lower-saturation colors and vivid textures. Environmental touches draw some pleasing palette choices out of the high-definition rendering, from the vivid aqua blue shades at an aquarium to the pink shades of a bakery, which make up for the mostly functional, albeit frequently satisfying, rendering of skin tones and natural shades throughout the film. Some fine textures emerge in places like the wallpaper of a low-cost motel and the masses of garbage in a hoarder's apartment, but the majority of the detail can be found in close-ups, clothing, and in Vince Vaughn's stringy hair. Black levels are appropriately even during nighttime sequences and in shadowy warehouses, while the film's range of motion -- speeding cars, gunfights, and foot chases -- keep up with the movement without any hitches. Some dense noise here and there, but Term Life looks really good.

A nimble 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers an equally suitable sonic treatment for Term Life, which focuses on firing off potent shots whenever it's necessary. Pops of gunfire are, of course, the heavier sonic elements to found in the track, which are suitably loud and punchy throughout the film. An explosion here, a fistfight there, and car chases in spots also engage the surround stage, hitting on substantial yet routine engagement of the bass levels and mid-range intensity. Verbal clarity remains fine even when Bill Paxton's fierce voice elevates in volume level, while also preserving the nuance of Vince Vaughn's comparatively subdued voice. The stylish crime-thriller music remains appropriately in the background and doesn't intrude on the film's clarity, and no instances of distortion could be pinpointed throughout. Much like Vaughn's character in the film, the audio treatment excels at doing its job while not drawing attention to itself.

Special Features:

Unsurprisingly, Term Life arrives with only a very brief A Family Affair: Making Term Life (2:39, 16x9 HD) featurette, which doesn't really have enough time to get beyond discussing the basics of the film's plot in between film clips. While quick, it's nice to hear a bit from director Peter Billingsley about building the dramatic and thriller components of the film.

Final Thoughts:

There isn't much to Term Life that one hasn't seen in other cat-and-mouse thrillers involving a capable criminal and a family member or a teenager. Director Peter Billingsley keeps up the pace well enough and certainly doesn't avoid trying to deliver a credible father-daughter bond between seasoned thievery mastermind Nick Barrow and his rebellious daughter, Cate, who are put in danger when one of his designed heists draws the wrong kind of attention from a murderous kingpin and a dirty police department. Burdened by the obligatory chemistry between Vince Vaughn and Hailee Steinfeld as the conflicted Barrow family, Term Life coasts through the motions of this kind of crime-drama without a whole lot of distinctive personality or robust action presence, despite having its head firmly on its shoulders involving foreshadowing and smart sequential craftsmanship. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds just fine, which will make this perfectly suitably Rental.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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