In Netflix’s ‘Sweet Girl,’ Big Pharma Aims Its Guns at Jason Momoa

Guilty pleasure movies have a way of becoming time capsules. You can always sense a screenwriter or director randomly switching on the news and finding inspiration. “Sweet Girl,” the latest in the growing crop of Netflix action distractions, is a bottomless set of clichés with a not unreasonable message about the perils of big pharma. The villains are not out to conquer the world, since they already control the stock market, instead they want to stop an angry citizen from exposing their corrupt manipulation of essential medicines. “I did a lot of research. It was originally part of the script when it came to us. I did a lot of research into ‘pay-to-delay,’ and what that was about. I had never heard of it, so I felt it was worth exploring. It’s a great catalyst to get the film going,” director Brian Andrew Mendoza told Entertainment Voice about the drives behind the movie.

The entertainment value rises when that angry citizen happens to be Jason Momoa, who drops his “Aquaman” swimwear to break necks in mere sweater and jeans. Momoa plays Ray Cooper, a working class boxer whose wife Amanda (Adria Arjona) becomes stricken with cancer. There seems to be hope in a new drug but it is dashed when the pharmaceutical company pulls the medicine from the market. In a rage Ray calls into a national TV show to berate the head of the company on a live news show. But Amanda passes away and Ray is left alone to take care of their daughter, Rachel (Isabela Merced). A journalist calls to speak with Ray, offering information on the company that refused to save her. When they meet the journalist is shot dead and Ray finds himself on the run with Rachel, evading assassins while determined to get answers and avenge Amanda’s death.

“Sweet Girl” is like a pumped up version of thrillers like “John Q,” where a seemingly everyday man finds no other way to help their family when it comes to essential needs than to knock some heads. Other societies simply provide accessible healthcare to their populations, in America Ray has to train Rachel in boxing and weapons handling. “I loved the father-daughter aspect of the story. It’s what drew me to it,” said Mendoza, “I’ve known Jason for a long time and he has a versatility to him that people haven’t seen. I felt like this script was also an opportunity to show a different side to him, a different side to Aquaman and being a superhero.” The narrative takes on a road trip spirit where Momoa and Isabela Merced, of “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” become one of those family duos with heartfelt moments punctuated by shootouts. Mendoza is making his debut as a feature director here, and he establishes environments well with that cold, wet terrain typical in thrillers. He also emphasizes Momoa’s capacity for emotion more than just physical presence. “I like the fact that he isn’t some ‘army ranger coming home.’ The fights are designed to be brawler-ish. He’s a boxer, he’s just been training and he’s not this skilled fighter,” said Mendoza about Momoa’s role. “There’s a cleaner fight style here.” 

“We started out as friends,” said Mendoza on his long working relationship with Momoa, “I was producing over at HBO and was getting into cinematography and he was getting into directing. So we made a short film together. We started this partnership where we were producing and I was shooting stuff for him, and he was directing…we see eye to eye, we have similar tastes in the things that we like.” Isabela Merced makes an excellent pair with Momoa because she has the toughness required for a young action role. “Both of them come very prepared, which I really appreciate, especially in a film like this,” said Mendoza. “It can get very complicated. When we designed the fights with Jason, those fights also have to take place with Isabela, so we had to work out the choreography so that it makes sense that someone her size could be doing that fighting. They both have huge personalities in a good way. They definitely seemed like father-daughter when we were shooting. But Isabela really dug deep into that PTSD mentality, of like what mentally happened to her parents. Isabela had more of a complicated character. But they both had to give really emotional performances.”

Among the slew of Netflix action romps, “Sweet Girl” stands apart in that it isn’t overlong and its major sequences remain grounded. Momoa and Merced dive through windows and run through sports stadiums, but the film maintains more of a chase energy without resorting to titanic explosions. “Each sequence has its own challenges,” said Mendoza. “The final sequence was in a fountain which is always challenging because anytime you’re working with water it’s time consuming. They’re moving in water and they’re in wet clothes. That can wear you out super fast. We also shot on a subway train and we had to choreograph that, because there’s limited space for the camera to move. It’s not like a set where you can move a wall.” Other moments have old-fashioned thriller tension. There’s a hired killer, played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, who dresses all in black and munches on toast in a diner while nonchalant telling Ray the end is near. The hunt for answers also leads to a senatorial candidate, Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman), who has a populist tinge to her speeches about cleaning out the filth in Washington, when she’s probably in the pocket of big pharma. In terms of movie paranoia, it’s not too off the mark.

“Sweet Girl” is efficiently-made escapism where the narrative clichés can be forgiven because Momoa and Merced have good chemistry and we can grin at the plot. If only someone would go deliver a punch or two at the private interests keeping healthcare so expensive. For Mendoza it also announces him as the potential filmmaker of better action films to come. “I’m working right now on a lot smaller film,” he said. “I’m more character-driven. If there’s action involved that’s amazing. But I’m not just drawn to the action. What was really fulfilling about this project is that there’s a lot of character work among the fighting. So hopefully there will be more of that.” Mendoza also embarked on another, different kind of major journey while making the movie. “My wife gave birth to our child a week before we started production… my wife and son were there during production. Directing is almost a 24-hour a day job. Any downtime I would have I would try to spend with my family.”

Sweet Girl” begins streaming Aug. 20 on Netflix.