There may be no real grindhouses anymore, but, if there were, “The Outsider” would feel right at home. Despite a shopworn setup in which the plot doesn't always make sense, it has a certain narrative drive and a whole bunch of blood-free killing.
Gruff, hulking Craig Fairbrass stars as Lex Walker — or so the credits say, although I can't recall his first name ever being mentioned on screen — a British mercenary working for the U.S. in Afghanistan. One day, his superior informs him that his estranged daughter, Samantha (Melissa Ordway), has turned up dead in Los Angeles from an apparent overdose and that he still doesn't get any time off to go deal with the burial details. He tells said superior to go perform a physically unlikely sexual act on himself.
When Walker returns to England, he discovers that her body, contrary to official promises, in still in L.A., so he grabs the next flight and waltzes through LAX security with his gun and six digits worth of cash undetected. He goes to the police morgue to identify the remains and is confronted with the happiest sort of bureaucratic snafu: The dead girl is not Samantha, but a vaguely similar type carrying her passport and driver's license.
He behaves as any good parent would and forces his way into the office of Samantha's apparent boss, Schuuster (James Caan), a multigazillionaire businessman whose accent tells us that his gazillions aren't legit. (He's apparently rich enough to afford a second U in his name just for style.)
Walker can't make it out of Schuuster's offices without pounding a security guard. Thanks to this petty indiscretion, he finds himself being interrogated downtown by the lethargic Detective Klein (Jason Patric), who can barely muster a modicum of interest in his story. Soon Walker's hacking his way through L.A.'s sleazy underbrush, somewhat less gracefully than the proverbial china-shop bull.
If your memory goes back as far as 15 years, you'll recognize the setup as a cruder version of Steven Soderbergh's “The Limey,” which was itself a variation on Mike Hodges's 1971 “Get Carter.” Both of those at least made some sort of stab at thematic content, whereas “The Outsider” has none beyond “Mongo sad... Mongo must find Samantha... Mongo want a shot, a pint and a daughter.”
To the extent this works, it's because of Fairbrass' screen presence. Looking a bit like Ray Stevenson, Fairbrass wears a permanent scowl atop his Big and Tall Men's wardrobe. His sheer bulk and apparent impulse problems almost make him believable. On the downside, his accent is so believable it's often difficult to understand what he's saying.
It would help if the L.A. in “The Outsider” felt like the one around me right now — or at least like the sun-and-grunge image created and reinforced in 70 or 80 years of books and movies. But, outside of a few exteriors, it could be anywhere — even, say, Baton Rouge, where not coincidentally everything (except those exteriors) was shot.
Interestingly, writer/director Brian A. Miller's next project, “The Prince,” is described this way on IMDb: “A retired Las Vegas crime boss is forced to return to the city and face his former enemies when his teenage daughter goes missing.” He must really love that set up. Or maybe — to paraphrase Billy Wilder's assessment of Universal's endless stream of “Airport” movies — he's just going to keep making it until he gets it right.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).