Offering melodramatic thrills very much in the “Fatal Attraction” mode, “Fatale” presents Michael Ealy as a married L.A. sports agent whose first-time fall off the fidelity wagon unluckily proves to be with one hell of a “woman scorned.” Its appeal to African-American audiences furthered by villainess Hilary Swank’s character being a crooked cop, this is a glossy, formulaic exercise handled with enough finesse by director Deon Taylor to make for a diverting night’s watch, if not much more. While it won’t likely turn the COVID-era box office slump around in Lionsgate’s Dec. 18 release on 1,000-plus theatrical screens, the microwave popcorn should commence popping once it hits PVOD Jan. 8.
Derrick Tyler (Ealy) has it all, to a lifestyle-fantasy degree: Hanging out with star athletes he represents at the successful L.A. agency he founded with best friend Rafe (Mike Colter); living in a spectacular hillside house, shared with spectacular spouse Tracie (Damaris Lewis). But all this success now feels a little hollow, particularly since his wife seems to be pushing him away, focused on her own real-estate career and who knows what (or who) else.
On a business trip to Vegas, Derrick is encouraged to forget his troubles by letting loose. That’s a mission he over-accomplishes, landing in the hotel bed of willing stranger Val (Swank), who says she needs such occasional respites from her stressful job. The morning after, her reluctance to let this one-night stand go sounds an initial alarm. Still, a guilt-stricken Derrick does get home intact.
However, that home is shortly broken into by a masked intruder, who nearly kills our hero before fleeing. When police are called, the investigative detective assigned turns out to be one Valerie Quinlan, gloating over finding her recent bedmate in the domesticity he’d lied to her about. She keeps their shared secret, but then keeps turning up with distressing frequency.
We soon glean she’s already using her job and connections to make another man’s life hell: a politician ex-husband (Danny Pino) who’s remarried, and refuses to let her see their child, whose custody she lost through seriously irresponsible behavior. She is a woman with a lot of scores to settle. Needless to say, it will soon be the unhappy lot of Derrick and his loved ones to become useful in that bitter quest.
The script by David Loughery (who penned Taylor’s last feature “The Intruder,” also starring Ealy) is a confident if uninspired assembly of familiar genre elements, with a light gloss of cautionary racial politics. It’s all given a slick surface sheen by the director, and from DP Dante Spinotti’s handsome widescreen compositions.
There’s not much below the surface, however, as these characters are defined more than their possessions and decor than any distinctive personality traits. (Charlie Campbell’s production design has even Val’s abode looking more like a private club than a working single officer’s apartment.) The fairly leisurely pace works well in the narrative buildup, but “Fatale” ought to tighten the noose as things get increasingly hazardous. One rather cheap jump scare aside, the movie doesn’t bring a lot of tension or visceral force to its eventual violence.
The story provides basic satisfactions expected from its ilk — infidelity is punished, pure malevolent craziness likewise — even if more rotely than one might hope. Part of the reason there’s a diminished climactic payoff here is that Swank, credible enough early on, can’t quite summon the demented spark Val needs. We can believe she’s a competent police detective (despite her glam presentation), an aggrieved mother, even a spiteful schemer. But to be memorable, the way Glenn Close was in “Fatal Attraction” or Jessica Walter in that film’s own antecedent “Play Misty for Me,” she needs her deeds propelled not just by ingenuity but some tangible, off-rocker lunacy. Though Swank gives a respectable performance, it turns out the kind of villainy required here (as opposed to that in “The Hunt” earlier this year, a better fit) isn’t really within her considerable range.
Ealy is fine in an almost purely reactive role, and the supporting players (also including Tyrin Turner as Derrick’s ex-con cousin) are solid if not given a great deal to do. The sense that “Fatale” is more an exercise in professional packaging than anything else is underlined by a soundtrack filled with gratuitous but enjoyable hiphop and R&B cuts.