Certain actors gain a reputation for their acting methods, the kinds of characters they play or various qualities that they bring to films in which they appear. Safe to say at this point that whenever a character is prone to being in a situation way over his head, or where manic energy is a requirement, Shia’s on a short list. Hopefully his character, Jerome, in the upcoming Lars von Trier joint, Nymphomaniac, knows how to turn it down a notch or he’s going to be shooting loads before he even gets his pants off. In the meantime though, LaBeouf is back to his familiar uptempo, up-shit-creek situation as the titular protagonist in first-time director Fredrik Bond’s Charlie Countryman (formerly The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman).
The set up might come off as some sort of frapped homage to notable horror films Hostel and The Sixth Sense in that Charlie, whose mother (Melissa Leo) has just died, had a life-altering post-mortem conversation with her. Therein she advised him to seek out his fortunes in Bucharest of all places. So with nothing better to do, he takes her up on the advice and does just that. It’s on the plane ride where he meets Victor Ibanescu (Ion Caramitru), a Romani who crossed off a bucket list item by making a pilgrimage to Charlie’s hometown of Chicago to see his beloved Cubbies play before he died. Turns out that bucket list item was the last, as Victor dies on the plane, but not before making some conversation with Charlie…both when he was alive and not. The latter conversation consisted of a request by Victor for Charlie to meet his daughter and get her a silly hat he purchased for her during his trip.
Again, Charlie complies with a dead person’s request and meets the daughter, Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood, sporting a not unaattractive Romanian accent). Circumstances find them meeting up again during Charlie’s cab ride from the airport and Charlie soon finds himself becoming infatuated with her. Problem is, she’s the estranged but still legally married wife of Nigel (the awesome Mads Mikkelsen), a local crime boss with a jealous streak a mile wide and a penchant for verbose and hostile confrontation. And Nigel’s none too fond of the fact that Charlie is following Gabi around town like a lovesick puppy dog. Victor’s death has precipitated Nigel’s return to Bucharest to reclaim Gabi, as before Victor had forced him to leave town and his daughter due to some evidence of a crime he had over Nigel. A side plot finds Charlie hooking up with some new found friends from the local youth hostel, Karl and Luc (Rupert Grint and James Buckley), partaking of some rad drugs and ending up at a strip club where they run afoul of Darko (Til Schweiger), the club owner who extorts tourists via a scam. Darko is also a former associate of Nigel and boss of Gabi, and also interested in the evidence Victor had, so Charlie is soon in it up to his neck on two different fronts.
Performances are roundly good. LaBeouf is in his comfort zone and Charlie is a character type of which he’s suited to wearing, although not necessarily the brightest of his recent portrayals. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know Charlie spends a good amount of time getting his ass kicked, mostly from Mikkelsen’s Nigel. Most of that he asks for because when it comes to Gabi, his better judgment isn’t only clouded, it’s fogged in. But he probably has the notion that a direction, even one filled with trouble, is better than no direction at all, which is what he faced when he got on the plane to Bucharest. When you see Charlie plowing headlong into all these bad decisions, you put your hand on your head, but nevertheless can’t help rooting for the guy. Who hasn’t done something stupid in pursuit of a girl? Not necessarily anything near as stupid as Charlie, but to one degree or another, we’ve all been there at some point. And Evan Rachel Wood’s Gabi is worth the pursuit (up to the ass beatings at least). She’s got her best thick Romani accent working here and Gabi is a hip, complicated pixie.
Hands down, though, Mikkelsen snatches every scene in which he appears. His Nigel is a cool, menacing, and surprisingly verbose thug. His encounters with Charlie contain some zingers about tuba playing and Charlie’s fellatio prowess, Dizzy Gillespie puffy facing and Charlie’s fellatio prowess, and others. I checked out Mikkelsen in a Danish film titled The Hunt earlier this year. In that film, he was a complete polar opposite to Nigel. Yet he has the ability to change his expression only slightly and go from completely sympathetic to all out prick. It’s freaky. Nigel was probably a bigger gas for him to portray than Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Nigel is as big a bastard, but a lot more fun at parties. Mikkelsen is really becoming one of my go-to guys in film. If he’s in it, I’ll at least give it a look-see just to catch his work. Til Schweiger also gives a nice turn as Darko, and is also surprisingly witty. Who knew that Romania had the market cornered on cut-up bad guys?
Fredrik Bond. who got his start in music videos, has put together an unconventional but solid film, that at times echoes some sort of unusual, gritty fairy tale. The extremes to which Charlie goes get a tad ridiculous, and the side plot with Darko and its direct correlation to the main story are a bit too convenient. Nevertheless, the interludes with the dead that Charlie has could have come off schlocky and out of place in a crime drama, but strangely are neither. There are also some nice quiet moments that feature Charlie and his mom and Charlie and Gabi. Camera work is likewise good, particularly in a running sequence that ends in a train station. LaBeouf did enough hoofing as Charlie in this flick to train for a 5K. And there’s a trippy drug scene (LaBeouf reportedly really dropped acid to portray it) that’s also nicely done. Bond has a good feel for how to transition from the harder scenes to the softer with nary a loss in momentum; and they intermix well to make for either a soft crime drama or a hard love story that doesn’t automatically classify. Overall, I liked Charlie Countryman quite a bit.
It opens in theatres in selected cities and On Demand on Friday, November 15. Click here for more details.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars