To franchise or not to franchise. That’s the question apparently every filmmaker, producer, or studio executive has to ask him- or herself before giving a greenlight to a sci-fi or fantasy property. In the case of Jonathan and Josh Baker, brothers making their feature film debut with Kin, an ill-conceived, frustratingly executed family/crime drama mashed up with plot points and elements unashamedly borrowed from familiar sci-fi classics (and at least one non-classic), the answer should have been no (as in “hell no”) when the franchise or series question came up. Instead, Kin sets up a larger world and universe, a bigger conflict in its final moments that practically begs moviegoers to see Kin multiple times so studio executives can greenlight anther entry. Spoiler alert: They shouldn’t. The Bakers and their screenwriter, Daniel Casey (expanding their short, “Bag Man”), shouldn’t have bothered or if they had, they should concentrated all of their time, energy, and talent into telling a story that could stand on its own.
The hints – if you want to call them hints and not borrowed plot elements – are there from the moment Kin’s lead character, Eli Solinski (Myles Truitt), a troubled teen prone to fistfights at school and collecting scrap metal from the abandoned husks of Old Detroit factories, discovers a discarded super-weapon, a ray-gun more powerful than anything currently on the market or in our military’s armories. He also finds the corpses of what appear to be soldiers, but when he returns to retrieve the weapon after being spooked, the bodies are gone, but the weapon has been left behind. Like any teen who discovers a super-weapon – making him more or less a superhero – he hides it from his stern, old-school dad, Hal (Dennis Quaid), a construction foreman or manager (or construction company owner, it’s never exactly clear), and his older brother, Jimmy (Jack Reynor), fresh from a six-year stint in prison for armed robbery.
Not surprisingly, Jimmy’s return creates friction with Hal, especially after Jimmy cops to a major debt – all of 60K or 10K/year for protection services – to a local d-bag, wannabe crime boss, Taylor Balik (James Franco). Taylor has serious anger management issues and the worst fashion sense of a wannabe crime-lord since Tony Soprano and his seemingly infinite supply of ugly sweaters. Setting aside the question why Taylor would protect Jimmy, knowing full well Jimmy would emerge from prison completely penniless, before long a desperate Jimmy makes a life-altering decision that forces him to go on the run with Eli, a bag filled with money, and a seriously pissed-off Taylor and his dirtbag crew in hot pursuit. Always thinking short-term, Jimmy thinks taking Eli to Lake Tahoe where once, long ago, they hung out as a family with Hal and their dearly departed maternal figure, will cure all that ails him. It doesn’t, but crossing paths with Milly (Zoë Kravitz), a stripper with a heart of gold, helps to keep their collective minds off a dark future filled with dangerous days.
Kin basically unfolds – more like unravels – as three parts road movie, with Jimmy, Eli, and Milly in one lane, Taylor and his crew in another, and mysterious, black-clad bikers in a third lane, and one part sci-fi/action movie, with heavy-handed nods to The Terminator (look for Eli playing a Terminator pinball game in one scene), and a siege flick set inside a police station where Eli’s semi-forgotten super-gun comes out to play (finally). Besides a cosplay-style spin with the weapon – curiously, it responds to Eli and only Eli –Kin contains all of three scenes that can be described with the word “action,” with the biggest bang(s) saved for last. An FBI agent, Morgan Hunter (Carrie Coon), makes an interest-raising appearance in the third act, but her onscreen time stays within single digits (maybe the next entry in the series, if it ever happens). While well choreographed, the climax feels like too little action too late, especially after we’ve spent the better part of two hours watching Eli and Jack (and later Milly) bond, de-bond, and re-bond again.
And that’s really the central problem with Kin: The Bakers and Casey obviously want to tell a heartfelt, grounded, realistic story about two brothers and the challenges they face (e.g., poverty, a criminal record, race in Eli’s case), but they’re hemmed in at every turn by the sci-fi plot elements. Those elements never feel integral, never feel integrated into the main plot or character development. Instead, they seem to exist primarily to give Kin a major selling point with moviegoers (sci-fi, action, superheroics) and set up a potentially lucrative, long-running series (super unlikely). Fueled by three or four major revelations in the span of two or three minutes, the rushed ending leaves more questions than answers behind. That was obviously intentional, but intentional or not, it was (and is) a cheat shouldn’t necessarily forgive, though chances are, they will forget.