It’s probably impossible to deliver a clearheaded verdict on one of the first movies set during the coronavirus pandemic while still living through that same crisis. History will have to judge whether Doug Liman’s Locked Down (premiering on HBO Max on Thursday), a romantic drama turned heist movie about an estranged London couple plotting a crime together in the early-COVID spring of 2020, is a good movie or not. I can only say that watching it from the point of view of a hostage of history—the position much of the world finds itself in right now, held in place by a slowly unfolding disaster—I found this movie both liberating and confining. Scripted by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, it has the experimental quality of some of Steven Soderbergh’s smaller-scale projects, including his most recent film, Let Them All Talk (a much better movie than Locked Down, but similarly subject to external restrictions that limited its scope). Though this experiment isn’t a total success, I appreciated its stubborn insistence on engaging with the current moment, this unsettled and complexly miserable moment in time.
We begin, as everything has this past year, on Zoom. Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in his bedroom talking sotto voce to two of his closest confidants (real-life couple Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Simon) about his lamentable pod situation: He has been dumped by his longtime live-in girlfriend, but they still have to share the same living space until the COVID crisis is over. Meanwhile, he’s also been furloughed from his job as a delivery driver and is at an all-time low point, even making half-joking gestures toward suicide.
Paxton’s ex, Linda (Anne Hathaway), is the successful but stressed-out head of an international media company. Though she still cares about Paxton’s well-being, she’s had it with his Eeyore-level negativity. They are cohabiting in a state of mutual bare toleration, sleeping in separate rooms and navigating warily around each other during the day. But they know each other well enough to suss out each other’s secrets: Linda has secretly taken up smoking again, while Paxton, a long-ago addict, falls off the wagon one night when a trespassing young couple shows him how to get high from the bulb of a poppy growing in his backyard. Both Linda and Paxton are perpetually dissatisfied, anxious, and cranky—a trio of moods that might be familiar to early 2021 viewers—though they also seem, every once in a while, to enjoy each other’s company.
For the first hour, much longer than in your average thriller, our main task is to get to know these two characters, their relationships to each other and to their jobs. Linda is depressed by her ascent to the status of corporate hotshot. After she’s forced to lay off a group of perfectly nice co-workers in a company downsizing, she starts to dream about having the money to quit and live a different life. Paxton, for his part, just wants enough cash to move out and start over without having to sell his beloved motorbike. In short, they are both bored enough and desperate enough for a change that when the chance to steal a rare diamond presents itself, they can’t help but consider a pivot to grand larceny.
The jewel in question is a historic collector’s item that Linda’s firm is responsible for insuring on its trip from the London department store Harrods into the hands of its new buyer. Because of COVID restrictions, and thanks to a fake ID provided by Paxton’s sometime boss (Ben Kingsley), the couple is able to devise a plan where the only people present at the pickup site will be the two of them. But in order for the plan to work, they have to collaborate, which means, at least for a time, finding a way to stand each other again.
After the psychological acuity of its first, character-focused half, the crime-plot part of Locked Down feels strangely underwritten, almost as if the film had been rushed out before it was done. The satisfaction of a good heist movie lies in the audience’s detailed knowledge of the plan, so that we can either anticipate or be surprised by all the ways things go awry. But the thieving couple in this movie conceive their plan so late in the game, and lay it out for us and for each other so quickly, that all we get is one scene of Hathaway’s character sketching a map of Harrods at the kitchen table. Without the clockworklike pleasure of watching an intricate scheme come together, the only thing driving the second half is our investment in the leads’ rocky relationship. Even with a rooftop Champagne picnic at Harrods—and with Mindy Kaling and Stephen Merchant showing up for fun Zoom cameos—the heist part of Locked Down is disappointingly devoid of sparkle.
Doug Liman—director of Swingers, The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow—clearly has it in him to direct both romance and action, but in Locked Down he appears more invested in the former than the latter, and never quite swings the shift in between. This structural imbalance is offset by the charisma of both lead performances: Hathaway and Ejiofor seem excited to play edgier, less nice people than they often get the chance to, and the early scenes of them locking horns in their claustrophobic (if posh) flat generate enough energy to carry the movie almost all the way over the finish line.
Liman’s next big project, scheduled to go into production later this year, is an action-adventure film with Tom Cruise that’s being billed as the first movie ever to be shot in outer space. Pandemic permitting, Liman and Cruise, both trained pilots and aviation nerds who are also longtime friends, are set to be launched together on Elon Musk’s SpaceX shuttle in October. If nothing else, it will be another opportunity for the director to explore claustrophobic coupledom under extraordinary circumstances.