“Nobody messes with my family!” shouts Queen Latifah, aiming a revolver at baddies during a late moment in “End of the Road.” It is one of several points in this Netflix thriller where the blatancy of undiluted cliché has an effect rather more comical than intended. Taking a brisk route from the pedestrian to the preposterous, Millicent Shelton’s slick but silly film diminishes its social-commentary edge by painting an African American family’s cross-country trip in cartoonishly broad terms, imperiled by crazy and/or criminal “crackers” at every junction.
Director and cast do their best — well, maybe not their best, but their competent professional duty — with a formulaic, contrived screenplay. Still, the results do no one much credit, landing closer to overripe cheese than taut suspense, or even guilty-pleasure terrain. “End” launches on the streamer Sept. 9.
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The Freemans — a choice of name that signals the script’s heavy hand — are introduced just as they’re saying goodbye to the only home some of them have ever known. After her husband’s death from cancer, Brenda (Latifah) can no longer afford to stay in their spacious Southern California house. Already grieving their father, teenage daughter Kelly (Mychala Faith Lee) and preteen son Cameron (Shaun Dixon) are further distressed by the prospect of moving to Houston, where their grandmother lives. “Just so you know, you’re ruining my life,” Kelly helpfully informs Mom while being pried off the boyfriend she’s leaving behind. Sharing driving duties on the long haul is Brenda’s antic ne’er-do-well brother Reggie (Chris Bridges, aka Ludacris).
The anticipated three-day trip would be onerous enough given this quartet’s argumentative dynamic. And dealing with the big, wide, very Caucasian hinterlands gets off to a poor start when Kelly delivers a well-deserved middle finger at a gas station to a couple of leering youthful yokels (Jasper Keen, Micah McNeil) who go unnamed, but might as well be monikered Cletus and Jethro. They give pursuit, briefly terrorizing the Freemans along a lonely desert road.
At a motel that night, the family unwinds from the close shave with “mean, stupid white boys” — until they hear sounds of violent struggle, then a gunshot in the room next door. The assailant escapes, and ER nurse Brenda cannot save a mortally wounded man (Jesse Luken) we recognize as having absconded with drug-cartel money in an earlier scene.
After being interviewed by local police, Brenda and company gladly hit the road again the next morning. But late-arriving Captain Hammers (Beau Bridges) of the Arizona State Troopers is not happy that they’ve left the scene. Then it turns out that Reggie, always a wellspring of impulsive bad ideas, has nabbed the duffel bag of cash that the dead man had stolen. This is somehow immediately known to the Bad Guys, who blow up Brenda’s cell with threatening messages, then kidnap a family member as collateral. Her attempt to return the money is soon thwarted by a whole trailer-park-full of inbreds who look like “The Hills Have Eyes Goes to Burning Man.” More complications and several squealing car chases also ensue.
Written by Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery, “End of the Road” starts out like a maudlin Hallmark movie, then becomes a race-relations-focused spin on 1966 minor camp classic “Hot Rods to Hell,” in which Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain’s squeaky-clean clan were menaced cross-country by psychotic delinquents. By the time Frances Lee McCain shows up as the malevolent Ma to Bridges’ good old boy Pa Kettle, all remaining sharks have been jumped. The surprise revelation of who regional crime boss “Mr. Cross” (as in “burning cross,” one presumes) really is turns out to be no surprise at all.
Shelton, a veteran episodic director who started in music videos, brings energy and polish — albeit not exactly the right kind of either for this story: The film moves along nicely but exhibits little flair for white-knuckle suspense or visceral action. And the warm visual palette that is at first appealing eventually becomes a nonsensical decision to light nocturnal desert settings in gaudy neon hues, as if for a rave. The routine bombast of Craig DeLeon’s score, and various preexisting pop tracks utilized, further underline an overall lack of instinct for thriller atmospherics.
Queen Latifah is such a formidable talent, it’s disappointing to see her star in (let alone produce) this kind of disposable entertainment whose generic fighting-for-my-kids heroine role might’ve served just as well for any lesser actor. The erstwhile Ludacris, another impressive thespian who arrived via hip-hop, slightly elevates a Chris Rock-type role — the motormouthed would-be problem solver who instead creates problems — but can’t quite redeem the idiotic decisions his character constantly makes. While supporting roles are well cast, most fall into one form of caricature or another, even if a skilled performer like the senior Bridges does his dangdest to soft-pedal the stereotype.
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