Nurtured from a concept eight years in the making from its previous life as a webseries, Split Lip marks a hopeful new milestone for writer and director Chris Sheffield and actress Dorée Seay.
For a good bulk of the film, there are some strong, solid performances and writing, and direction overall. There’s a mythology here that feels fresh, and Seay’s own screen presence makes it all the more rewarding.
The badass cadre of assassins in Split Lip, including Eli Godfrey’s most chilling role of the pack – a psychopathic masked killer named “Ghetty”, foundates an almost tournament-like action thriller in which Seay truly holds her own action star weight despite having next-to-zero experience.
Encompassing the opener of Split Lip is a seething tone-setter inaugurated by Karlton, played by Dejean Brown. Underworld assassin politics set the pace for our thriller as we meet Set (Seay), a hardened life-long assassin who finds herself on the run from her mentor/employer after making “a mistake” – one signified by none other than a lingering cut on her right side of the mouth.
Driving hundreds of miles out from California, she seeks refuge at a hotel in a small desert town in Arizona where the fight to survive soon ends up on her front doorstep. Much to her chagrin, Samuel (Chris Labadie), an idealistic crusader-type who notices her injuries, becomes obsessed with helping and protecting her at any cost.
Least concerned for his newfound cause is his sister, Dana (Maryam Cné), who, despite her own wisdom and good sense, fails to get through to Samuel as he insists on trying to ween this complete stranger away from a dark path. That neither changes nor slows down the pace at which killers arrive in Set’s wake, cornering her into one-on-one duels to the death that soon bring unwanted plight to Dana and Samuel, and off-setting some pretty terrible and rather consequential decision-making on their part.
Ultimately Set is forced to make an inevitable choice. This, in the course of the biggest fight of her life having to tackle some of the deadliest and dangerous freelance assassins in the world, bookends the ever-growing and quiet struggle she endures with the sudden discovery of her own dwindling humanity, while searching for the absolution she needs in this life, or the next.
Split Lip jumps back-and-forth in time as the plot slowly unravels piece by piece and character by character, amply establishing the world Set operates in. Co-signed by Brown’s brilliant performance as the soft-spoken, wise and well-kept Karlton, you don’t see much of that world apart from the action – save for the inner workings of Karlton’s small, private office. He’s the master at the controls and never loses his wits or temper for his all-business approach to the job apart from his slightly more personal liking toward his protégé, Set. There’s no emotional bond between the two – if not a discrete, underlying one – but rather, an amenable understanding of the way things are and have to be.
Seay delivers a fine, commanding performance as the beleagured assassin, Set, showcasing the kind of constant fight-or-flight psychosis that viewers can relate to for an assassin/redemption story of this kind. Next to the action and select moments of dialogue and drama, Seay totally owns the role; Scenes like when she’s in a room sealing her windows and crafting makeshift weapons out of a dumpster and broken, throwaway objects while sitting hunched over on her bed and pondering her next kill are invocative of both Seay’s terrific acting and Sheffield’s writing and direction for the most part.
Cnè’s Dana lends one of the best supporting performances of the film next to her on-screen sibling counterpart, Labadie, whose Samuel has its uses when applicable. For much of the film, however, his role next to Set, feels increasingly biting and dissonant compared to what the film sets out to be.
Samuel is the kind of character whose galling attempts at being Set’s funny, youthful and charming savior (save for the stalking) would be best reserved for an untouched proof-of-concept sitting in a corner in Kevin Feige’s office under a stack of Phase 5 MCU scripts – a plus to that effect, one might say, although much to our chagrin, it presents a glaring indication of how much he and Sheffield falter at trying to make this character work in what starts off as such a dark, serious and even well-acted story.
Samuel’s naiveté grows so painfully obvious by the minute that Set’s own seeming desire at one point to punch him in the face after trying (and failing) to enjoy a burrito, is the most genuinely jocular moment of the film. Even more mind-boggling is how long she puts up with him, during which the most painfully awkward set piece used to illustrate their odd-couple development is a small night time gathering Samuel takes a liking to where teens gather around a fire-lit barrell and dance to the music in their heads while wearing white masks. It’s a really odd scene…if not just really horrible Arizona tourism?
It’s not until way later in the movie when things finally get a little too real for Samuel that Set’s own character development gets back on track with what the film tries to accomplish. The more he tries to white knight Set, the less involving and engaging the film feels and begin looking for the remote to change the channel.
The action is pretty simplistic in its mechanics and in adapting Seay to such a physically demanding role. Sheffield does take some risks in terms of editing and lensing, and those risks won’t appeal to all viewers, although there’s little here that takes away from Seay in what she brings to the role to help make the action look as good as she can. That she’s fit and already has a more than capable hand in screenfighting and the coordination involved is a plus that I think almost fight choreographer might take a liking to. She can act and has the screenfighting acumen to boot, which, in my view and with the right training, can make her a force to be reckoned with in action cinema.
For what it’s worth, Sheffiled reaches a commendable goal with this film as hard as filmmaking is, or even crowdfudning for that matter. That he launched and relaunched the campaign to help finance this film’s completion alone says how much he and the cast and crew loved making this film, and it makes covering films like these such a worthwhile task.
Going forward however, Sheffield still has a ways to go in sharpening his craft after Split Lip. He sets the right vision for the movie and has, for the most part, an amazing cast to execute it, and regrettably, you have to tread the waters of an unwanted romantic comedy. The only thing keeping you gripped into the film’s progress is the danger that Set faces in the scheme of things and the tragedy that awaits.
The mythology of Split Lip is wholly an interesting one, and in my view, there’s definitely room to grow it properly and tastefully if Sheffield so chooses. Set is definitely not a one-note character, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in a production of this kind.
Should some kind of a sequel come of this, however, I highly suggest leaving Samuel out of the picture. He’s entirely antithetical to the kind of companion Set could settle for, and he’s not the best, most well-thought out version of his character as the director may have envisioned on paper.