The fingerprints of executive producer Spike Lee are all over cowriter-director Julius Onah’s middling feature-film debut about an impoverished Manhattan bartender/aspiring disc jockey, August (Columbus Short), who gets unwittingly involved in some criminal shenanigans. Trouble starts when a girl he met by chance one night—troublemaking Swedish chanteuse Signe (Alicja Bachleda)—calls him out of the blue, ostensibly to hook up, but in reality to hide out following an after-hours cocaine party gone wrong.
There’s a victim, drug dealer Jesus (Kareem Savinon), who has been shot and suffocated, along with a spoiled rich boy, Nicholas (Jesse Spencer), who appears to be responsible. (Signe captured most of the incident on her iPhone while hiding in Nicholas’ closet, though she also may have been involved in the killing.) Wouldn’t you know, Jesus also happens to be the brother of August’s friend Angel (Wilmer Valderrama), a short-fused Latino gangbanger out for bloody revenge. So while August deflects Angel’s inquiries, he also tries to figure out a way to part Nicholas with a hefty sum of hush money.
The story has plenty of possibilities, though Onah rarely manages to put his own stamp on things. Lee is in evidence through the slickly adoring imagery of Manhattan locales (a seedy nightclub embraced as surely as an antiseptic modern apartment) and the frequent use/abuse of his signature people-mover shot. Plus, that title is very Sam Fuller, though The Girl Is In Trouble never achieves a modicum of the terse poetry that great director brought to his vivid tales of lowlifes and down-and-outs.
Onah’s aesthetic quirks (a fractured narrative; cheeky on-screen text; searching narration from some undetermined point in the future) are post-Tarantino posturing at their worst, and updated so as to irritatingly incorporate millennial mainstays like Facebook into the pastiche. On the plus side, Onah does show a relatively sure hand with his performers, or at least gives them enough free rein so that they can bring something vital to the very thin characterizations. Best in show is special guest star Paz De La Huerta as an especially flighty downtown mixologist, though it’s great to see perpetual supporting performers like Mike Starr (as Nicholas’ imposing personal fixer) and Miriam Colon (as Angel’s doting grandma) lending their own unique shine to the subpar material.
The main cast is a more uneven bunch: Short aims for searching sensitivity (his character unironically believes in fate, destiny, and horoscopes) but instead comes off like an aggravating naïf. And Valderrama just does some flimsy, squinty-eyed variations on the pitiable machismo of prime De Niro or Pacino; his efforts—which include forcing one of his targets to sniff down an entire brick of cocaine—might be better showcased in that direct-to-video sequel to Carlito’s Way. Bachleda, however, is a terrific femme fatale—mysterious, sensuous, and otherworldly, and a breath of fresh air in what otherwise feels like another calling card from the Big Apple boys club.