Prolific Canadian writer-director Rob Grant, who’s made five features and one documentary in the last decade, once again puts a limited setting and budget to resourceful use in “Harpoon.” This thriller about three none-too-loyal friends adrift on a yacht made a splash at Fantasia (after a lower-key Rotterdam premiere) with its genre-fan-friendly mix of grisly action and jaunty black comedy.
That balance was particularly successful in Grant’s 2012 “Mon Ami,” wherein two would-be kidnappers kept bungling their way to an ever-higher accidental body count. His latest is slicker but also more glibly mean-spirited, with characters it’s hard to care about and some twists that seem more contrived than clever — or credible. Nonetheless, . It opens in a few U.S. theaters Oct. 4, followed a few days later by Blu-ray and TVOD release.
The arch tone is set immediately by comedian Brett Gelman’s omnipresent narrator, who paraphrases Aristotle on the three types of friendship before introducing us to three friends who barely merit that term at all. Penniless Jonah (Munro Chambers from “Turbo Kid”) is a hopeful hanger-on to the Hitler Youth-looking rich kid duly named Richie (Christopher Gray) and his longtime squeeze Sasha (Emily Tyra). She’s by now accustomed to juggling what the narrator calls “her roles as girlfriend, mother and referee.” Such multitasking is necessary in dealing with a BF who has psychotic outbursts over nothing, such as beating Jonah senseless because he’s misunderstood texts between BFF and GF as evidence of infidelity.
In fact, Sasha and Jonah were orchestrating Richie’s birthday present — the titular spear gun. Its inappropriateness as a gift to someone noted as “prone to fits of rage” reps just the first among several psychological stretches here. Nor are we ever quite convinced that Sasha and Jonah are so helpless or parasitical that they couldn’t come up with better life plans than hitching their wagons to an abusive frat-brat like Richie (who, to make things worse, is apparently the son of a notoriously savage mobster).
Still, the perks are significant, like the yacht outing a remorseful Ritchie proposes after realizing he was perhaps wrong to rearrange his pal’s accusing face. Once all are aboard the “Naughty Buoy,” however, things again rapidly degenerate. Turns out perhaps the birthday boy’s suspicions were right after all, which renders him a lethal menace anew. Flip-flopping allegiances within the triangle are temporarily suspended when the boat becomes disabled, carrying its passengers out into the Atlantic with only enough food and water for a day trip. Naturally, these peevish, finger-pointing millennials aren’t about to pull together long enough in a prolonged, life-threatening crisis. The grievous bodily harm, bad decisions and unhappy disclosures pile up until our protagonists seem less likely to survive each other than they are starvation and thirst.
“Harpoon” is enthusiastically violent, sharply packaged and gamely acted by three able young thesps who make the most of their roles’ frequently over-the-top nature. But it’s hard to like these characters much, and the film sometimes seems to be sneering at them. That reduces whatever emotional stakes there are in a plot with empathy-free twists. Particularly later on, characters abruptly reveal new sides that serve to trigger drastic reversals of fortune but don’t feel organic. “Mon Ami” was also a catalog of grimly funny calamities, but there was an endearing “Fargo”-like quality to its gallows humor that “Harpoon” lacks.
Of course, for most viewers, an exercise like this needs to be lively, nasty and stylish more than it needs to be believable. And in those terms, “Harpoon” delivers. Grant (who’s cut other people’s projects in addition to his own) has an astute editorial sense that, along with Charles Hamilton’s camerawork and the diverse soundtrack, avoids any sense of monotony despite an inherently claustrophobic story concept.
At times, the presentation is a little more smarty-pants than necessary, not just in that winking narration but for impish onscreen text, ironical music choices and occasional grainy B&W narrative digressions. But while it doesn’t quite achieve the Polanski-meets-Coen level of maliciously suspenseful wit it’s going for, “Harpoon” is nonetheless sufficiently lean-and-mean fun as its protagonists walk a plank of their own making.