What it's about: Sam Collins is a pharmaceutical rep who specializes in vaccines. He is invited to a swanky New Year's Eve party at a doctor's Louisiana estate in order to broker a deal. But the next morning, Collins isn't feeling too good and ultimately ends up on the side of a country highway with a quick and debilitating sickness. When he comes to in a hospital, he is given the bad news that sudden illness is due to a rare poison that only gives him about 24 hours to live. But his own murder investigation isn't the only one he's become mixed up in.
Ah, the opening scene cutting to an intertitle that says "12 Hours Earlier." I love films that do that! I just couldn't wait to find out what led our primary character to the sticky situation we find him in.
Dead on Arrival is a low production film with all the trappings: stilted acting, on-the-nose dialogue, generically awful music, and a thriller plot that isn't too far off late-nite Cinemax.
There is a conversation early on that is almost literally "How about that vaccine stuff? I've heard that it does more harm than good," to which the vaccine rep replied "I guess it depends on who you ask." Which, no.
Another great bit of dialogue: "Everybody's got a transvestite story around these parts."
The film's sense of location is at times its best aspect while also a very movie version of Louisiana. It is a swampy, good-ol-boysy environment that does add some much needed flavor to an otherwise generic film. Then again, scenes like a meeting with a voodoo doctor are incredibly cliche, complete with a put-on Miss Cleo accent. This particular scene also comes out of absolute nowhere, though it could be expected based on all the Louisiana markers it hits. This character is also strangely the only black character in the film.
There is also one character noted as Armenian, but he only seems to exist only for a joke that Kim Kardashian is the most famous Armenian person in history.
There is far too much plotting in Dead on Arrival. The poisoning/murder mystery hook should give enough intrigue, but the film spends significant time with a detective duo, gangster cronies plucked straight out of The Sopranos, corrupt cops, a strip club, and an ensemble of random locals. It is surprising that Dead on Arrival wasn't released in 1995.
As these side characters [basically every one of them] begin to reveal themselves as connected to the central criminal activity, it is all done in a way that tells you nothing about why or how they are specifically connected. This leads to an empty narrative sorely lacking motivation. I suppose the ultimate motive is the secret that keeps the plot running, but it is hard to stay invested in the series of random events and conversations.
And it isn't worked out too well. The final scenes of the film involve one of the rogue's gallery saying "You have no idea what's going on here, do you?" ... and then proceeds to tie up every one of the narrative strings. Writing yourself into this kind of corner makes it difficult to be at all compelling.