We got another one from Team John Wick, everyone! Day Shift comes to us from producer Chad Stahelski by way of 87North Productions (here credited as “87Eleven Entertainment”, for whatever reason) and John Wick franchise screenwriter Shay Hatten. The script was co-written by Tyler Tice and directed by J.J. Perry, both of whom make their feature debuts here.
Exec Producer Jamie Foxx stars as Bud Jablonski, an LA bounty hunter who exterminates vampires to collect and sell their fangs. Trouble is, Bud is a notorious loose cannon on the outs with the local vampire-hunting union (Because of course there’s an international bureaucracy for vampire hunters.), so he’s stuck selling fangs at discount rates for shady individuals eager to rip him off at every opportunity. (His main point of contact is played by Peter Stormare, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know.)
Things get worse when Bud’s ex-wife (Jocelyn, played by Meagan Good) threatens to pick up their daughter (Paige, played by Zion Broadnax) and move to Florida unless Bud can raise ten grand in seven days to pay for Paige’s tuition and braces. Oh, and neither one of them knows anything about Bud’s line of work — they think he’s in pool maintenance — which doesn’t exactly help matters.
Desperate for more money, Bud comes crawling back to the union so they can give him one more chance and pay top dollar for harvested fangs. The catch is that for a probationary period, Bud has to be accompanied by a union rep: some hapless milquetoast from accounting, name of Seth (Dave Franco). The logic goes that the union boss (Seeger, played by Eric Lange) only took Bud back in as a favor to the legendary vampire-hunting hotshot Big John (motherfucking Snoop Dogg), so Bud got saddled with a bureaucrat who knows every union rule and regulation by rote. That way, if and when Bud slips up with even the tiniest infraction, Seth can report the break of protocol and Seeger can use that as an excuse to kick Bud out of the union for good. Again.
While all that’s going on, we’ve got Audrey (Karla Souza) running around. She’s an elder vampire buying up and developing real estate for her own nefarious purposes. Also, Audrey’s developed a kind of sunscreen that allows vampires to walk around in daylight for limited periods of time.
To repeat: Audrey has made it possible for vampires to walk amongst humans in broad daylight. That seems like it should be a pretty big fucking deal. The film barely addresses it, and none of the goddamn vampire hunters in the cast seem remotely concerned. Likewise, there are vague mentions of some New World Order in which Audrey plans to unite all the different vampire clans under her banner. None of this is ever clarified. All this high-stakes scheming is almost immediately swept under the rug so Audrey can chase after Bud in some contrived penny-ante bullshit revenge arc.
On a similar note, we hear rumors about a great and evil elder vampire named “El Jefe” who works as a criminal kingpin in LA. The character plays absolutely no role in the plot. I might also mention Heather (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who showed remarkable potential as a character when she moves in next door to Bud. She ultimately serves as little more than a plot device. I get that the filmmakers are trying to world-build and set up possibilities for any potential sequels, but it only adds up to a messy plot with too many threads left dangling.
Which brings me to a far bigger problem this movie has: The lack of a cogent theme.
As this is essentially a paranormal “buddy cop” action/comedy that takes a mundane workaday approach to the fantastical, the obvious point of comparison is Men in Black. But a hugely underappreciated part of what made MiB work so well is in the overarching theme of how small and ignorant we are in the grand scheme of things. By comparison, Day Shift doesn’t have a single coherent theme that I could find, and I was looking hard. As the whole movie is littered with half-baked subplots that don’t mesh together and don’t resolve into anything worthwhile, the whole movie is loaded with disparate undercooked themes that never develop into anything coherent.
It’s especially disappointing, as vampires have historically been connected with any number of evergreen themes. They’re a ready-made allegory for immortality, sexuality, mankind’s primal nature, addiction, overconsumption, corruption, and so on and so forth et goddamn cetera. And given the film’s L.A. setting, the vampires could’ve easily been used to tell a story about greed or eternal youth and beauty. But no, there’s not a whiff of anything like that, or much of anything else. What the hell?
Luckily, the movie is at least easy to follow. All we really need to know is that Bud is hunting down vampires to raise money so his family stays in LA. Nice and simple. It certainly helps that between the opening action sequence and Seth’s pedantic exposition dumps, the filmmakers have no problem getting the audience up to speed on how vampires work in this universe without slowing down the pacing too much.
Speaking of which, I’m sorry to say that Dave Franco is by far the weakest link in the cast. He’s simply too pretty to play a nebbish weakling, and he doesn’t have anywhere near the acting range to make it work. Though he does at least have sufficient comedic chops to hold his own against Jamie Foxx, so there’s that. It really is a damn shame, because the central Bud/Seth relationship looks great on paper. If only Seth had been given to an actor with the range to play the character’s full development arc (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, perhaps?), it would’ve been perfect.
As it is, the rest of the cast is solid. Jamie Foxx has more than enough charisma to carry a film like this, and he’s long since proven his chops in both action and comedy. Meagan Good and Zion Broadnax both turn in spirited performances, and it certainly helps that neither of them are playing passive women who are completely helpless. Casting Snoop Dogg to play the older grizzled veteran was a stroke of inspired genius. Karla Souza plays a compelling villain who’s deliciously fun to hate. Natasha Liu Bordizzo is underutilized, but she’s more than charming enough to leave an impression. Kudos are also due to Steve Howey and Scott Adkins — they only show up for one action scene, but goddamn.
This brings me to the single most important redeeming factor of the whole movie: These action scenes are fucking sick. The filmmakers are diabolically creative in utilizing the vampire conceit, most especially in clever effects gags and moves that would be anatomically impossible for any human. The shootouts are great fun, the fistfights are delightfully messy, and the car chase is augmented by jaw-dropping drone photography. The stunts are dazzling, the editing is tight, the camerawork and lighting are all on point, the twists and visual gags are nicely surprising, and the choreography is staggering throughout. This is easily the best action I’ve ever seen on a Netflix original, bar none, and you’d damn well better believe I’m including The Grey Man in that assessment.
As with so many Netflix originals, Day Shift leaves me with that frustrating feeling that it should’ve been better than it ultimately was. Like it was so close to legitimate greatness, but came up frustratingly short. In this case, the big problem is that there’s no overarching theme to give the film any kind of brains or heart, and one half of the central “buddy comedy” dynamic — namely Dave Franco — was miscast.
But on the other hand, Jamie Foxx and the rest of the cast more than make up for Franco’s shortcomings, and I can’t possibly emphasize enough that the action scenes in this movie are incredible. While it’s disappointing that the stakes aren’t city-wide or global in nature, the deeply personal stakes that we get are enough to power a simple action movie plot.
Overall, I had great fun watching this one in spite of its numerous flaws. I’d even go so far as to say that if Netflix gives The Grey Man a megafranchise and leaves Day Shift without a sequel, they’re betting on the wrong goddamn horse. This is definitely one worth checking out.