[19 October 2010]
Raymond J. Barry (Justified) is a throwback to a time when being a movie tough guy was all about attitude and how you carried yourself. He’s the kind of guy who may not look like much, but there’s something about him that lets you know you’re not to mess with him. Barry evokes actors like Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk in his ‘70s prime. Even though he’s a bit of an odd fellow, he’ll come at you like an angry pit bull, latch on, and never let go. That is exactly the kind of movie writer/director Jesse V. Johnson (Pit Fighter) is trying to make with The Hitman Diaries: Charlie Valentine.
Barry plays the title character, an aging Chicago gangster who never loses a fistfight and always gets the beautiful girl. His parole officer, Becker (Tom Berenger), urges Charlie to get out of the game so he doesn’t have to do time at his age. Determined to get the obligatory one-last-big-score, Charlie sets up a crew (including badass icons Keith David and Vernon Wells) to rip off mob heavy-hitter Rocco (James Russo). This set up is a bit of a red herring. After the job goes bad—very bad—the plot turns as Charlie flees to LA to see his estranged son Danny (Michael Weatherly, NCIS).
Danny is a fidgety, small-time hood who thinks he wants the power and lifestyle of his father, even though Charlie himself considers his entire life a waste. The two bond as Charlie teaches Danny his old school ways, and both wind up getting something new out of the deal, something neither one has had before, a person they can trust and rely on.
Charlie Valentine works best in these moments, during the times when father and son dance around, trying to figure out how to relate to each other. Weatherly gives a nice performance as the wounded child eager for approval, trying to impress his father and prove his worth, only to ultimately be confronted by the violent realities that come with his choices.
The story is wildly uneven, bouncing all over the place, much to the detriment of the film. Becker is around for two scenes then vanishes completely with no explanation, as does Danny’s girlfriend Jenny (Maxine Bahns). The movie frequently cuts away from the main action to watch Rocco and crew torture their way across the US looking for Charlie. There are some heavy-handed flashbacks that, in an unnecessary move, try to bring Danny’s mother into the mix. At one point Charlie even has an awkward pregnancy scare with a stripper.
Despite the cumbersome title, there are times when The Hitman Diaries: Charlie Valentine works pretty well as an homage to ‘70s tough-guy films. It can be dark and gritty, and the violence is very real, but while Barry and Weatherly have a good chemistry, and the arc of their relationship is well done, not enough time is paid to it. There are standout moments within the mess of it all, but the film ultimately fails to be anything out of the ordinary due largely to a lack of focus and superfluous side stories.
There are a few moments on the DVD where there is some weird ghosting, and it’s hard to tell if it from the transfer or the film itself. In the commentary Johnson and cinematographer Jonathan Hall talk about how they filmed using a older process, the same one Sergio Leone pioneered to give his westerns the desired aspect ratio, so you have to wonder if that played a role. This track is full of interesting bits, cool technical information, and behind the scenes stories that render the run-of-the-mill behind the scenes feature largely innocuous.