Fast Charlie

First Charlie
First Charlie
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Pierce Brosnan swaps his Irish brogue for a southern drawl in this lightweight crime thriller with a twisted sense of humor. Fast Charlie, based on the novel Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler, features a hit man who loves to cook Italian food seeking revenge after a rival kills some of his guys. The film also boasts the final performance by acting legend James Caan as Stan Mullen, a crime boss and something of a surrogate father to Brosnan’s character. Fast Charlie is not great but it is good enough — decent action, nice cast chemistry, plenty of dark laughs.

Charlie Swift (Brosnan) walks into a junkyard in Biloxi, Miss., wearing pants but no shirt with his hands in the air. We don’t know why yet, but we will soon enough: That’s Charlie’s voice-over narration that kicks off the flashback sequence that will explain how he ended up in such dire straits. Several weeks earlier, Charlie puts on a suit and gets into his Cadillac for work; when Charlie dresses like this someone is about to die. He picks up an unlikely partner in crime: Blade (Brennan Keel Cook), a goofball whom he derisively calls “donut” — you’ll have to see the movie to find out why — and who can’t believe his luck at getting to work with such a respected mob enforcer.

Charlie and Blade have been given Rollo’s whereabouts; Rollo (David Kallaway) is a double-crossing gangster who is about to take what they call “a dirt nap” as per Beggar Mercado’s wishes. Beggar (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is a New Orleans mobster who has been trying for years to get Stan (Caan), Biloxi’s big heavy, to go into business with him. Something goes wrong with the plan — natch — so Charlie has to track down Rollo’s ex-wife, Marcie Kramer (Morena Baccarin), a taxidermist who lives in a house on stilts by the sea. She hates Rollo, wants nothing to do with Charlie but needs to get away from her old life.

Later at Stan’s birthday party, Charlie and his criminal family toast their decades spent under their beloved boss’ employ. Stan, who is in a wheelchair and suffers from dementia so severe he barely remembers anything anymore, is delighted by their love and loyalty. He doesn’t remember most things these days, but he wants an update about what’s going on with Rollo. Because that is the one thing that seems to stick: Stan may not be all there mentally, but he knows two things for sure — he doesn’t want some punk like Beggar anywhere near his Biloxi turf and he has made this very clear to the syndicate. Unfortunately for Stan, Charlie and company — especially Blade — Beggar takes great exception to being ignored.

Brosnan brings his usual slyness and easy charm to the role of Charlie; you like him instantly even though the guy has been killing people for money for years. But it’s the scenes of Brosnan as Charlie caring for Caan as Stan — bringing him dinner, medication, vitamins — that really sell us on their relationship; these are ostensibly good people despite their bloody line of work. There are codes here still being adhered to: You have rules even among thieves because honor must exist somewhere in this world. So it feels believable when they’re caught off-guard by Beggar’s attack on them all.

One of them is a tough woman who, to her core, is not a damsel in distress. She’s just as hard as anyone else around her and can handle herself fine. In tattoos, jeans, and a T-shirt, Baccarin is almost unrecognizable; but what she lacks in glamour she gains in confidence and kindness beneath her rough exterior — though she does warn Charlie “not to fall for me,” another gangster. Richard Wenk’s script (The Equalizer trilogy, The Magnificent Seven) has them falling in love with each other without fawning over each other: They have business to take care of together. They do so lethally. A happy ending isn’t guaranteed by the relationship.

Australian director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan films, Salt) has a grisly comedy up his sleeve to serve as the action’s appetizer: You’ll be laughing too hard to notice you’re bleeding when he pulls off his opening scene. And for much of the rest of it — until things get serious — Noyce keeps his foot on the gas pedal with the kind of film that swings between being tense and being funny so quickly that all you can do is go along for the ride. It helps that nearly everyone here — especially Sharon Gless as Rollo’s saucy mother Mavis — has at least one moment when they steal away with this thing.

It also doesn’t hurt that Noyce hasn’t lost even half a step when it comes to directing an action sequence: He understands how important it is for us to feel like we’re not watching someone just shoot someone else or kick someone in the face. We need to feel every bit of both actors on either end of whatever way-too-close-for-comfort exchange they’ve got going on here — whether it’s two bullets whizzing past one another or two people trying to wrench the same gun from each other’s hands. And we do.

But there is one glaring problem with The Gateway’s story, and it’s not just that Charlie and Marcie take so many licks without ever being in a position where they could actually get hurt, let alone killed: It’s that Beggar’s goons never kill him when they have him cornered, which happens at least once too often; but they should have killed him at least twice that number of times less than enough. One particular scene doesn’t work because Charlie literally has a gun to his head. Pull the trigger and roll credits on this thing 30 minutes early. Wenk is a tremendous screenwriter — one of our best — so it’s strange that he repeatedly writes scenes where Charlie escapes certain death by the skin of his teeth, as though he hasn’t had any experience writing movies like this before.

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