I don’t like David Ayer. His movies consistently portray a worldview in which “evil” can only be defeated by “bad”. “Good” is naive at best and useless at worst. There is no place for hope or morals in a David Ayer picture. He’s cynical to an extent that I find personally abhorrent.
So here’s The Beekeeper, a Jason Statham action vehicle directed by Ayer. I’m admittedly curious to see how these two sensibilities go together. Especially since reviews have been mostly positive. Let’s see what happens.
The premise begins with Eloise Parker, played by Phylicia Rashad. Eloise is a retired teacher, now working as the director for an educational charity. Trouble is, she gets hooked on a ransomware scam that steals every cent to her name. Shortly afterward, Eloise kills herself.
Enter her daughter (Verona, played by Emmy Raver-Lampman), an FBI agent who refuses to believe that her mom would’ve killed herself. And while she’s got a suspect, she has no evidence whatsoever that he was responsible, or even that Eloise was murdered at all.
That suspect would be Eloise’s neighbor (Adam Clay, played by Statham). He’s a beekeeper who helps clear hornets off the property while breeding bees that pollinate the fields and gardens. But it turns out he’s not just a beekeeper, he’s a Beekeeper. Retired, but still.
See, at some point in the past few decades, somebody in the U.S. government got the bright idea of the Beekeeper Program, off the books and outside the chain of command. The basic idea is that one person would be given unlimited resources and unchecked authority to serve as judge, jury, and executioner to keep “the Hive” (meaning the system and society of America) functional and safe.
Any questions? Because I’ve got several. I have so many questions about the legal justifications, bureaucratic logistics, and historical implications behind such a program; all of which more or less boil down to WHAT THE FUCK?!
There are myriad obvious reasons why this premise shouldn’t work. Yet it does, partly because Jeremy Irons (here playing a former CIA director turned corporate fixer) is devoting every ounce of his legendary charisma into selling it. And he’s assisted by Minnie Driver in a glorified speaking cameo, that certainly helps.
But of course the major selling point is Statham doing what he does best. He’s working squarely within his wheelhouse, effortlessly selling this character as an unstoppable badass. Far more importantly, this guy is ingenious in his methods and brings some gloriously brilliant kills to the screen. In particular, that Kevlar wire stunt with the elevator shaft was the kind of beautifully psychotic spectacle I want to see in any action film.
Even better, the filmmakers are good enough to sell the threat that Clay is up against — the baddies are so tough and intimidating that Clay looks that much tougher for walking right through them. It’s genuinely fun to watch the character “level up”, killing his way to better guns and vehicles and equipment as he kills his way up the ladder. Unfortunately, this means a lot of characters who get set up as the big bad heavy only to get dispatched five minutes later, which gets tedious after a while.
But what really sets Clay above and apart from most other disposable action heroes is that he has a strong moral code. This guy seriously believes to the depths of his soul that he’s acting for the greater good, and Statham sells that conviction with flying colors. The moral code goes a long way toward establishing Adam Clay as a power fantasy — someone who doesn’t hurt or kill innocent bystanders, who goes after the most evil and powerful slimebags that the law is powerless to stop, and destroys them all for the good of mankind.
Which brings me to the other crucial selling point: The nature of the evil in question.
I’ve seen enough Trilogy Media videos to respect this portrayal of ransomware scammers and malware fraud. Yes, it’s questionable that this particular scam is being committed by flashy techbro douchebags in Massachusetts, as opposed to lower-class schlubs working out of a nondescript office building in India, but the methods and psychological tricks at play are quite accurate. And yes, it’s sadly but absolutely true that malware fraud victims have killed themselves or attempted suicide upon the discovery that they’ve been tricked out of all their life savings. (CONTENT WARNING for those links, obviously.)
I’ve said in the past (as with my reviews of The Circle and Dream Scenario) that technological fears and issues must be discussed in an intellectual manner, and addressing the topic in emotional terms will only come off as Luddite fearmongering. With this film, we get an impressive balance of both. The film offers a detailed and informed portrayal of how and why ransomware scams work, why scammers are an evil that need to be purged from this planet, and how they evade prosecution. And then we get the emotional satisfaction of watching them portrayed as one-dimensional hate sinks (most notably through Josh Hutcherson, chewing scenery as the primary antagonist) that get brutally tortured and murdered.
What we’ve got here is a film in which a preening dickbag gets reduced to a blubbering wreck, pleading to buy off Jason Statham with NFTs before he gets killed off in a hugely elaborate stunt. I didn’t know we needed that, but I’m glad we have it.
But then we get to the downsides. What we have here is an authentic portrayal of a very real problem that’s hurting very real and innocent people all over the world. And it exists in the same movie as a power fantasy in which a demigod with an agenda goes on a killing spree through hordes of unambiguously evil assholes. And the characters openly discuss the latter as the only viable solution to the former.
Which brings us back to David goddamn Ayer.
It bears remembering that in this movie, the paragon of “good” is an elderly woman whose naivete is taken advantage of for every cent she’s worth, and then she kills herself. Her daughter — the stand-in for law and order — may be well-intentioned and good at her job, but she’s powerless to effect any real change or protect anyone on any meaningful level. And don’t even get me started on her partner (played by Bobby Naderi), a lazy smartass comic relief.
Time and again, the film explicitly states that the law is unjust and the system is powerless against this degree of evil. Violence is the only answer, and the only hope we have is a vigilante acting outside and above the law, with no oversight or accountability whatsoever. It’s the classic David Ayer mantra: The ends justify the means, and good is powerless unless it’s protected by evil from evil.
To be clear, I understand that this is all in fun when it’s part of a mindless straightforward over-the-top action flick. It comes part and parcel with the genre. I get that simplistic morality is necessary because we don’t want any convoluted ethical dilemmas getting in the way of the speed and brutality of popcorn action.
But it makes a difference when this simplistic over-the-top violence is presented as the first, last, and only viable solution to a serious crime that’s causing real-world deaths. The film seems to argue that online scammers can never be properly dealt with unless an unstoppable killing machine comes in to slaughter every last one of them. And if this or any problem can only be solved by someone with superhuman speed and endurance, working with unlimited resources, acting above all laws to kill thousands of people without trial or rights, then we are well and truly fucked. If our problems can only be solved by superhumans, then there is no place in this world for humans. If violence is the only answer for all our modern woes, we might as well burn down the whole planet right now and get it over with.
Don’t get me wrong, The Beekeeper is nicely satisfying as a straightforward action flick. It’s greatly enjoyable to watch Jason Statham firing on all cylinders, the villainous players are all delectably fun to hate, and the fight scenes are all exhilarating from start to finish. I can also appreciate an action film that updates the antagonist to a real and modern specific threat that isn’t rooted in race or international politics.
I just wish we could’ve gotten all of that without David Ayer’s brand of cynicism. If a filmmaker is going to bring up real problems and portray them in real terms, let’s have some real solutions beyond “justice” from an unkillable and infallible vigilante. Oh, and did I mention that the world-building makes no kind of rational sense?
With all of that said, at least this is an action film with personality. This wasn’t built to be some dime-a-dozen DTV bullshit, this is an action flick with quality fight scenes and a very real message. It earns the right to exist. I had a good time watching it, but I didn’t enjoy thinking it through. And I’m certainly not hoping for a sequel.