If you’ve come across a listing on a streaming service or VOD directory recently for a movie that appears to star someone like Bruce Willis or Robert De Niro or Sylvester Stallone but has a completely unfamiliar title and premise, there’s a good chance that it’s the handiwork of prolific producer Randall Emmett. Emmett has taken advantage of the growing insatiable need for content to churn out cheaply made, largely interchangeable B-movies that recruit recognizable stars like Willis, De Niro, and Stallone for small parts and then slap their names and faces on the posters. A recent lengthy profile in Vulture quotes a film executive who dubbed Emmett’s films “geezer teasers” for their tendency to bait audiences with the presence of those aging stars.
That Vulture piece also highlights Emmett’s directorial debut, Midnight in the Switchgrass, which is his 19th collaboration with Willis. This may mark Emmett’s first time in the director’s chair after 100-plus producing credits, but in all other ways it’s indistinguishable from any of his other geezer teasers, trotting Willis out for a supporting role that amounts to maybe 10-15 minutes of screentime spread across the first half of the movie, while a couple of less bankable actors play the actual lead roles.
Set in Florida but shot in Puerto Rico, Midnight in the Switchgrass follows two law enforcement officers tracking the same serial killer. Florida state police officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch) has been on the case for years, insisting to his superiors that a string of dead women discovered alongside interstate highways are all the victims of a single killer. FBI agent Rebecca Lombardo (Megan Fox) is operating a prostitution sting out of roadside motels, luring in men who seek out illicit sex online. Both of them are closing in on trucker Peter Hillborough (Lukas Haas), who kidnaps and kills vulnerable young women.
Willis puts in his typical minimal effort as Lombardo’s partner, who criticizes her for getting too involved in the case and then literally just heads home in the middle of the movie. Neither Hirsch nor Fox is up to the task of playing a dogged police detective, something that Hirsch already proved in the Emmett-produced Force of Nature last year.
Hirsch lets his wavering accent and his mustache do most of the acting, while Fox is clearly trying to deliver a more serious, dedicated performance, but she has so little to work with that the efforts are entirely in vain. Willis, breezing through his handful of scenes, has perfected the right way to act in a Randall Emmett movie, with one eye always on the paycheck.
The pacing is fitful and ungainly, with scene transitions that are often abrupt and jarring. It’s a long time before Crawford and Lombardo actually team up, and there’s no sense of connection or shared dedication to the case once they do. Instead, Emmett and screenwriter Alan Horsnail almost immediately turn Lombardo into a damsel in distress, captured and held by the killer.
Why does Peter kill some women right away, while holding others captive in his shed, only to kill them later? Presumably the answer is so that the filmmakers can depict both gruesome dead bodies and women chained up in dingy cells, and Haas’ flat performance gives no sense of Peter’s motives or proclivities. He’s a devoted family man with a wife and young daughter who publicly touts his Christian faith, but the movie has nothing to say about religious or patriarchal hypocrisy. He’s just a dude in a flannel shirt who moves the plot along.
Emmett occasionally manages to attach his name to more respectable efforts, and there are brief hints that he might be attempting to emulate his sometime collaborator Martin Scorsese (he’s a producer on Scorsese’s Silence and The Irishman), who’s thanked in the closing credits. Emmett depicts Crawford’s exaggerated anguish over the investigation via sepia-tinted flashbacks, usually to events from just a scene or two earlier. It comes off as comical rather than intense, a misguided effort to add psychological depth to stock B-movie elements.
Those pretensions are limited, though, and as a director, Emmett isn’t particularly better or worse than any of the anonymous journeymen he hires as a producer. He demonstrates poor attention to detail (Crawford either works for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the Law Enforcement Department of Florida, depending on which signage and logo you believe) and forgets about the alleged 2004 period setting the moment the onscreen title disappears.
But missteps like that from any director clearly wouldn’t bother Emmett the producer. By the time viewers get a chance to complain about the low quality, he’s long since moved on to the next project. As the Vulture article indicates, he’s already completed his next directorial effort, with Robert De Niro and John Malkovich as the geezers being teased. It’s set for release next year, along with at least two other Emmett productions. They’ll be available on your preferred VOD or streaming outlet, whether you look for them or not.
“Midnight in the Switchgrass” is out Friday in select theaters and on demand and digital; it’s available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray.