This week, the 2013 thriller Homefront debuts on Netflix, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it pop up on the streaming service’s top 10 movies chart soon after. Why would a nearly eight-year-old movie that barely made a dent at the box office or with critics suddenly become a hit on Netflix? For the same reason as similarly underwhelming thrillers Triple 9, Den of Thieves, Peppermint and Braven (all of which have spent time among Netflix’s top 10 movies): It’s an unassuming, meat-and-potatoes action movie with recognizable stars (Jason Statham, James Franco and Winona Ryder lead its cast) that’s easy to watch.
These are the kind of comfort movies that, in the basic-cable era, would air endlessly on TNT and USA on lazy Saturday afternoons, when suburban dads would fall asleep in their recliners halfway through, secure in the knowledge that they could tune in again the next time the movie was on. They’re what TBS used to call “movies for guys who like movies.” And perhaps most importantly, they made such minimal impressions on their initial releases that to most Netflix users, they may appear to be new movies. The generic thriller storylines, hodgepodge casts of name actors putting in token efforts, and mid-level production values all resemble the current state of Netflix originals.
Nothing about Homefront is surprising in any way, save perhaps for the long, flowing locks that Statham sports in the movie’s prologue, as undercover DEA agent Phil Broker. Broker helps bring down a meth-dealing biker gang, in the process getting the gang leader’s son killed in a hail of police bullets. Two years later, Broker’s hair is all gone and he’s living in a small Louisiana town with his 9-year-old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), working on renovating an old house and trying to keep a low profile. But an altercation at Maddy’s school puts Broker on the radar of a local drug dealer known as Gator (Franco), who soon discovers Broker’s true identity and decides to leverage that info to bolster his own meth business.
Based on a novel by Chuck Logan and written, somewhat improbably, by Sylvester Stallone (who initially conceived it as a vehicle for himself before passing it along to Statham), Homefront is a lesser showcase for Statham’s talents, with chaotic, hard-to-follow action sequences helmed by director Gary Fleder and a perfunctory father-daughter relationship between Statham and Vidovic (it involves skipping stones across a pond at magic hour). Stallone scripts a single great one-liner for Statham, as Broker is being threatened by a pair of goons while attempting to fill his truck with gas: “Whatever you’re thinking,” he tells them, “rethink it.” You can guess what happens next.
Franco comes across like “Playing a Meth Dealer Named Gator in a Jason Statham Movie” is one of his performance-art pieces, and Ryder is deeply miscast as a junkie go-between who uses her trashy sexuality to win over an important gang lieutenant played by Frank Grillo. Chuck Zito takes the role that Stallone should have played, the hulking older gang boss who calls the shots from prison. The minute the movie ends, it completely dissipates from the viewer’s mind.
And yet there’s no reason to think Homefront won’t be a big hit on Netflix. It’s even been a surprise aftermarket hit once already, when it inexplicably spent time in the top 10 rental charts on iTunes and Google Play for several weeks in summer 2020. Homefront’s disposable qualities are exactly what make it perfect for the kind of background half-viewing that Netflix facilitates.
Phil Broker would be right at home alongside Braven’s Joe Braven (Jason Momoa) and Peppermint’s Riley North (Jennifer Garner), who are both dedicated parents raining violence down on bad people who threaten their families. As long as you occasionally look up, so you can catch Braven throwing a flaming axe at some dude’s face or Riley taking out an entire warehouse full of cartel henchmen, you’ll experience all that these movies really have to offer.
Both Triple 9 and Den of Thieves hinge on plots that are far more complex, but the betrayals and reversals and intricate heist plans are ultimately beside the point. Both movies attempt to emulate Michael Mann, with their empty macho posturing from morally compromised characters. But their riffs on flawed men on both sides of the law are mostly half-baked, and the pseudo-philosophical themes are secondary at best to the action set pieces.
Triple 9 begins with an exhilarating bank heist and features a tense mid-film foot chase through a maze of identical apartment buildings. Den of Thieves opens with a cacophonous shootout in front of a donut shop and ends with an excessively epic confrontation and chase sequence through gridlocked freeway traffic. These cool action beats are buried in labyrinthine crime stories full of overheated performances (from actors including Casey Affleck, Gerard Butler, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, among others). Den of Thieves is an unforgivable 140 minutes long.
Of course, on Netflix, you could watch those 140 minutes in seven 20-minute chunks like a season of a TV series, and you wouldn’t be losing anything if you did. These movies are all undemanding viewing experiences, which is why they work just as well in the streaming age as they would have on basic cable. Homefront certainly won’t be the last mid-tier action thriller that Netflix licenses for streaming, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a sequel to one of these movies (like Den of Thieves 2, which was initially announced in 2018) eventually pop up as a Netflix original. Most people won’t know the difference.