Russell Crowe, Russell Crowe. The man delivers a big box of acting. He can underplay, and let that soothing-on-the-cusp-of-psycho purr take care of business. He can overplay, and pour on the sauce, the relish and the dressing.
In the sadistic yet middling road-rage thriller “Unhinged,” Crowe literally steers the vehicle delivering the big box of acting, over- and under-. While there’s barely a movie there, a year from now, when the multiplexes of the world will either largely be back, be gone or be something in between, we’ll have forgotten “Unhinged.” But we’ll remember who gave it the sauce and — without actually repeating the “Gladiator” line out loud — who asked the rhetorical question: Are you not entertained?
The answer: a little. Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth’s premise is stripped to the bone. Late, again, for school drop-off, harried single parent Rachel, played by Caren Pistorius, faces another sludgy commute with her supernaturally calm and wise son (Gabriel Bateman) in the back seat. A pickup truck in front of their car won’t go on the green light. Honk. Hooooonk.
Mistake! It’s Russell Crowe she’s bugging, and he looks ... unhappy? Unfriendly? Unmoved? Something. A few minutes later, there he is again, alongside mother and son, stuck in traffic. “We seem to have developed a fundamental inability to apologize to anyone for anything,” Crowe’s unnamed nemesis says, with a vague gumbo dialect and phrasing borrowed from Strother Martin’s failure-to-communicate warden in “Cool Hand Luke.”
From there, in flatbread dialogue largely relayed by cellphone, “Unhinged” goes about its escalating business. Vehicular homicide. Restaurant stabbings. Rampant hostility toward divorce lawyers. Climactic home invasion. Bear grunts. Bear grunts? Bear grunts. Scripted or otherwise, when vexed, Crowe’s character growls like a Kodiak behind the wheel. Director Derrick Borte, who made his feature debut in 2009 with “The Joneses,” concentrates his resources on four-wheel destruction noisy enough to take your mind off the story problems.
A key misjudgment comes early, in a prologue where we see Crowe’s character, recently and unhappily divorced, take revenge with gasoline and a big claw hammer under the cloak of night. This gives “Unhinged” a big opening. It also predetermines everything in the heaviest way, giving Crowe nowhere to go but backwards. (The movie might’ve worked better with a flashback at the 30-minute point, after introducing Crowe out of the blue and in his pickup of death.)
Like Crowe, Pistorius is a New Zealand native. She’s a good, honest actor stuck in a one-note rut in what feels like a two-speed movie that is either standing still or driving crazy. “Unhinged” takes place in Generica USA, with cars bearing faux “America’s Heartland” license plates. (The movie was shot last summer in the New Orleans area.) The violence is innately gratuitous, because the premise is an excuse for a simmering kettle of violence to boil over periodically. There’s no mystery (a la Spielberg’s “Duel”), and minimally effective use of confined spaces (a la the tasty 2012 Wes Craven picture “Red Eye,” which screenwriter Ellison also wrote).
Even so, I’m glad “Unhinged” exists, if only because of the exceedingly droll and foul-mouthed promo trailer Crowe tweeted recently. It’s not safe for work, if you still work near other people. But Crowe delivers more and better entertainment in that single minute than many films, including this one, manage in 91.
MPAA rating: R (for strong violent content, and language throughout)
Running time: 1:31