“Hotel Artemis” is the kind of oddball freakshow one-shot you don’t see very often, the kind where someone who’s been knocking around the film industry for a while finally gets it together, calls in a bunch of favors, and makes his own movie. Drew Pearce has been a writer and producer on various film and TV projects (he wrote “Iron Man 3”), and I guess he’s made a lot of friends over the years, because the cast for his debut feature is absurdly strong. High-concept, low-budget, proudly set-bound, “Hotel Artemis” shouldn’t work at all. Somehow, miraculously, it does.
We’re in day-after-today Los Angeles, 2028 to be precise, during one long night of citywide rioting that threatens to bring on the apocalypse. (The water has been privatized by corporations, and the citizens aren’t happy about having to pay for it.) The Hotel Artemis is a dingy downtown Art Deco edifice that serves as an undercover emergency room for wounded criminals; if you’re shot up and your membership’s paid up, you can check in and get sewn up. The vibe seems like a cross between early “Blade Runner” and rehashed “John Wick.”
It’s a dark, crepuscular joint — shot in gloomy chiaroscuro by Park Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (“The Handmaiden”) — and we realize with a start that Nurse, the ratty-haired biddy who runs the hotel with an iron fist, is played by Jodie Foster, looking like a shipwreck and talking out of the side of her mouth like a dystopian Thelma Ritter.
She has a full house this night, with the various tenants nicknamed for the rundown suites/intensive-care units in which they’re staying. Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown of NBC’s “This Is Us”) is a soft-hearted bank robber who arrives toting his big brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry of FX’s “Atlanta”), who has been ventilated by the riot police outside. Nice (Sofia Boutella) is a hired assassin with a mission, a past connection to Waikiki, and a rather convenient bullet hole in her arm.
The two clash with Acapulco (Charlie Day), a mouthy jerk of an arms merchant, and they all butt heads with Everest (Dave Bautista of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise), the mountain-size “medical professional” who serves as Nurse’s orderly and enforcer. They’re waiting for a Mr. Big to arrive — the Wolf King of LA — and the casting there is so perversely right that I’m not going to spoil it by telling you who he is. The actor playing the Wolf’s violently insecure son Chris, however, is Zachary Quinto, and it’s fun watching him get Mr. Spock out of his system.
The arrival of a wounded police officer (Jenny Slate) goes against the house rules (one of which is, sensibly, “patients may not kill other patients”), but her presence sheds light on a chapter in Nurse’s past and tightens the tension as “Hotel Artemis” hurtles chattily toward a violent multi-character showdown. The movie rarely leaves the hotel’s grimy corridors and rooms and it can’t help feel stagy, as if this were a play that had been bottled up in Pearce’s head for too long. It’s claustrophobic, not always in a good way, and after 80 minutes of revving the engines, the whole thing starts to run out of gas.
But the dialogue is punchy, profane, and often very funny, and the performers are genuinely committed. Bautista’s Everest is touching in his devotion to Nurse, Day is amusingly despicable, Brown gets to stretch a bit from his popular TV role, and Boutella unleashes her inner Tarantino heroine.
That said, “Hotel Artemis” belongs to Jodie Foster. The actress doesn’t appear in many movies these days, let alone hold down their centers, and you can feel her delight in burrowing into the layers of this motor-mouthed petty tyrant — the grief beneath Nurse’s sinew, the care and concern beneath her doomsday humor. (It somehow seems telling that, while most movie stars of her generation work hard to appear youthful, Foster heads in the other direction here, reveling in the chance to go dowdy and gray.)
Anyway, at this point in a career that goes back to her childhood, we trust Foster so much that if she thinks Drew Pearce is worth taking a flyer on, he probably is. “Hotel Artemis” is a hunch that plays out better than almost anyone could have expected.
Written and directed by Drew Pearce. Starring Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Dave Bautista, Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto. At megaplexes in Boston and suburbs. 93 minutes. R (violence and language throughout, some sexual references, brief drug use).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.