The condemned: Pawn (2013)
The plot: A cop walks into his favorite diner for a cup of coffee, only to realize that there’s a robbery in progress—a ridiculously complicated robbery.
Over-the-top box copy: “But what happens next… and what happened just before… will change everything you think you know.” (The ellipses are theirs.)
The descent: Pawn went straight to DVD earlier this year, with precisely zero fanfare. It was produced by Michael Chiklis—who also stars—as part of an effort to launch a new production entity. Though the cast is respectable, it’s clearly a movie that was made on the cheap. Chiklis sorta-apologized for it in an interview with Collider, saying, “I mean, it’s a scale movie. It’s a little movie. All things considered, it’s a cool little film. A lot of bang for the buck considering it was a 15-day shoot… All things considered, it was an impressive cast, some really nice performances.” And this is while Chiklis was theoretically promoting the movie. In other words, “Eh, we tried. At least we didn’t lose a ton of money on it.”
The theoretically heavenly talent: Fans of The Shield probably fluttered a bit when they saw Chiklis and Forest Whitaker in a cop-drama together. Their confrontations on that show were tense, high-stakes, and generally pretty amazing, with each bringing his own version of crazy intensity to the table. Whitaker is a Best Actor Oscar winner (for The Last King Of Scotland), and Chiklis won a Golden Globe for playing Vic Mackey. Then there’s Henry Hill himself, Ray Liotta, who’s no acting slouch.
The execution: For a few brief minutes of its awfully short runtime, Pawn shows some serious promise. Whitaker, playing a local cop, enters the oddly named Be Brite Diner, where it’s quickly established that he’s a regular: He shakes hands with the locals and even sits down for an in-progress chess game with the proprietor, played by Avatar’s Stephen Lang. It quickly becomes clear that something’s not quite right in his usual haunt, with Lang acting squirrelly and trying to give Whitaker clues about the gang of armed men strategically seated around the diner. (It echoes the scene in Sudden Impact where Dirty Harry’s barista signals trouble by dumping way too much sugar into his coffee.) A blazing shootout erupts, with Whitaker and the locals giving hell to Chiklis and his team of baddies. Action-movie protocol would then take us to the beginning of the story, showing us the twists and turns that led to this tense build-up and flashy payoff. But not here: Pawn’s best scene turns out to be some kind of daydream sequence—it’s not even clear whose—just a cheat to allow a cool scene of what might have been. From there on out, Pawn disappears into a hole of twists, turns, and nonsensical layers.
In an attempt to disguise the fact that it actually has very little plot (and certainly nothing resembling a plausible story), Pawn adds layer after unnecessary layer, double cross followed by quadruple cross, followed by the rarely seen backflip-triple-lutz cross, with a dash of red herring. There are far more characters inside and outside the diner than necessary in a feeble attempt to frame a robbery-gone-wrong as a Reservoir Dogs-styled puzzle. It goes something like this: The diner is owned by the Russian mob. Chiklis is hired by a local dirty cop to rob a hard drive from the safe, which contains information that could implicate said local dirty cop. Whitaker, for no discernable reason, is there to “check up on” the robbery in progress. (He’s dirty, too.) Sean Faris plays a just-released car thief who gets implicated in the robbery even though he’s innocent—he’s ostensibly the main character, but has little to do until the end.
Outside the diner—90 percent of the movie takes place inside—there’s Common playing a hostage negotiator, along with an internal-affairs guy who happens to be the suspect’s brother, and Ray Liotta, whose sole purpose is to kidnap the hero’s wife for nonsensical reasons. Well, the reason might be so that Ray Liotta can do some capital-A acting and try to bring some credibility to this movie. To that end, he very menacingly drinks some water. Listen for the gulps.
But more important to an overall appreciation of Pawn—and I’ve been saving this morsel for you—is that Michael Chiklis is supposed to be British, and he delivers every line in an exaggerated Cockney accent, saying things like “oi” and “mate” and “geezah” with a flair that clearly says “We wanted Jason Statham for this movie, but he was busy doing pretty much anything else.” I really, really hoped/thought that his accent was going to turn out to be a ruse—like Ryan Phillippe’s in Gosford Park—but nope, Chiklis just wanted to be English apparently, for no particular reason. Here’s a nice little example:
It’s pretty hilarious, but not necessarily hilarious enough to recommend Pawn. The only/ideal situation to experience it would be half-asleep on the couch, when the cable box somehow ended up tuned to Starz Action and the remote seems really far away. The action is fine, though without Liotta there to basically explain everything that happened to a mysterious person lying in a hospital bed, nothing would make sense at all. As it is, you might not care. Guns will go “bang, bang,” and you will wake up trying to figure out if you dreamed up a half-assed movie or actually saw one.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Extremely unlikely. It’s less excitingly bad and more simply mediocre. Not as good as, say, The Mechanic—an actual Statham movie people barely remember—or as bad as, say, Four Brothers—a Mark Wahlberg movie people barely remember. Someone should supercut all of Chiklis’ speaking scenes, though. Or maybe dub over somebody doing it without the accent.
Damnable commentary track or special features? There’s no commentary track, but there is a 23-minute making-of featurette, which is pretty damn long for an 88-minute movie. In it, Whitaker compares Pawn to Rashomon, presumably because they both offer different perspectives on the same event (sort of), and not because Pawn is destined to be an enduring classic. With no apparent self-awareness, one of the producers says that Pawn reminds him of Dog Day Afternoon, which is fair only inasmuch as both feature robberies-gone-wrong and one central location. Faris claims to have been so excited by the script that he only read up to page 10 before accepting the role. (“I shit you not,” he says to the camera, as if we should be shocked that the guy whose biggest role prior to this was three episodes of The Vampire Diaries was willing to take a job.) Faris also says, “I read the script forwards and backwards—literally!” Finally, another producer, fully serious, describes the movie as “a vicarious thrill ride that doesn’t let go,” perhaps auditioning for a career in lazy film criticism, in case this producing thing doesn’t work out.