Synopsis: A cross-country road trip becomes a highway to hell for Brenda and her family. Alone in the New Mexico desert, they have to fight for their lives when they become the targets of a mysterious killer.
Stars: Queen Latifah, Ludacris, Beau Bridges, Mychala Faith Lee, Shaun Dixon, Frances Lee McCain
Director: Millicent Shelton
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Like many others reviewing movies today, I grew up watching the great Siskel & Ebert duke it out weekly on their eponymous television show. I learned a lot hearing the two critics debate the pros and cons of what they enjoyed and disliked about the various new releases that came out over the years, and while their opinions were obviously coming from one perspective (white, hetero, male), I appreciate even more now that the show taught me perspective. Especially Roger Ebert. I’m not in any minority when I say that I’ve liberally lifted from him the necessity to evaluate each movie on its merits, doing my best not to compare it to anything else that week or even outside of its genre. That’s not fair to the film or the reader.
Take a film like End of the Road. This new Netflix movie starring Queen Latifah is predictable fare with a clear skeleton of previous movies cobbled together, albeit with a highly likable cast and filmmaking far above in the creativity department. It’s not going to win any awards or be the most known for on the resume of anyone involved, yet it gets the job done in the best way possible. However, it’s being released right in the middle of festival season when many critics are reviewing the first crop of potential Oscar hopefuls, so it’s bound to get compared to those films in passing. It’s not in the same league as those, nor does it intend to be. For what it is and what it sets out to do, End of the Road plots out its course and takes audiences on a fast-moving thrill ride with few bumps along the way.
Recently widowed and faced with substantial medical bills, Brenda (Queen Latifah, Girls Trip) is forced to sell her home, uprooting her children to move back to Texas and in with her mother. Understandably her teenage daughter Kelly (Mychala Faith Lee) and young son Cam (Shaun Dixon) aren’t thrilled about losing their father, home, and friends in quick succession, but they’re all pitching in to help their mom. Also coming along on the trip from California is Brenda’s brother Reggie (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, F9: The Fast Saga), who struggles to be a dependable figure in the lives of his family.
The group isn’t too far into their trek when they run afoul of some racists in Arizona (note: the tourism board of AZ will be none too pleased with this one), the first encounter with broadly drawn characters that target Brenda’s family. Shaken, they find a hotel to stay at for the night only to find themselves next door to a man murdered later that evening. As they try to save him, Reggie notices a bag hidden in the bathroom filled with unmarked bills, a bag a local drug kingpin will do anything to get back. Once he figures out that Reggie has made off with the bag, it becomes a game of cat and mouse as Brenda has to find a way to get the money back to a shadowy figure who ups the ante by stealing something of hers in return.
Making her feature film debut, director Millicent Shelton works with production designer Lucio Seixas (Chemical Hearts) and cinematographer Ed Wu to create a hyper-neon-realism of the Arizona desert locations where the film takes place. It makes End of the Road feel like it’s taking place in an alternate dimension at times, which aligns with the entire situation being so foreign and strange for Brenda and her family. Colored with pinks, purples, and other neon glows, I thought it looked incredible and helped the viewer not to focus on some of the more traditional twists and turns the movie leans into.
Screenwriters Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery concoct a standard wrong place/wrong time scenario and find a way to have Brenda, Reggie, and her kids get into all kinds of worsening situations throughout a harrowing night. Most of this is as believably executed as possible, sold nicely by Queen Latifah, who never gives less than 100% in any project she undertakes. There’s always natural ease to her acting, which helps the viewer acclimate to whatever character she’s trying on for size, and it’s refreshing to see the Oscar-nominated actress in a more physically active part. When she takes charge in the film’s second half and begins to steer the ship instead of letting it sail on its own, you wish you were in a movie theater to see how an audience would have reacted.
I also enjoyed Chris Bridges as Reggie and the strong scenes he shares with Queen Latifah, especially the two children. The uncle character gets a chance for redemption, and while none of the acting in End of the Road needed to be as strong as it was for it to be as enjoyable as it turns out to be, it’s appreciated that the cast took the movie as seriously as they do. In more minor roles, Beau Bridges (Hit & Run) looks good at 80, and his investigating sheriff stands out in the supporting players, along with Frances Lee McCain (Scream).
Running a smooth 89 minutes (shorter if you consider the very long credits), this is a film you can invest time in and not run out of gas. One of those movies you might have stood in line for a Friday night in 1993 and watched while devouring a bag of popcorn with a raucous audience, End of the Road delivers on its promise and doesn’t ask anything more of you. That’s the kind of movie that feels good at this time of the year, so zoom zoom over to Netflix and start ‘er up!