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PARK CITY - After battling giant evil robots for a good chunk of the past six years, Shia LaBeouf is proving he's up for something different when he gets in front of the camera. Last year he starred in John Hillcoat's period thriller "Lawless" and Robert Redford's political drama "The Company You Keep," the later which will hit theaters in April. It's been a long time, however, since LaBeouf was likable, let alone appeared as though he was actually having a good time making the picture. Enter, Fredrik Bond's "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman" which premiered Monday night at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
In a Q&A following the screening, Bond and screenwriter Matt Drake referred to the thriller as a sort of "fairy tale," but if that is what the first time feature director was going for it's been lost in a wash of overdone stylistic filmmaking and a very weak screenplay. The story begins with Charlie (LaBeouf) hanging from a wire over a river in Bucharest, Romania and an unknown woman (Evan Rachel Wood) taking a gun and shooting him. A narrator (John Hurt) tells us there is more to this story (it's also the first sign we're in trouble). We journey back to America where Charlie experiences a vision after his mother (Melissa Leo) is taken off life support. Mom tells Charlie to move on with his life and travel to Bucharest (there is a nice joke about why she suggested this particular destination later on) and before you know it Charlie is on a plane to Romania. On his flight he is befriended by an older man who ends up dying next to him during the trip. Perhaps hinting the film will go in a surreal direction (no such luck) Charlie has yet another vision. This time it's the older man telling him to give a message to his daughter, Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood). After some unnecessary scuffles with Romanian airport police, he ends up meeting Gabi, conveying her father's last words and - surprise - it's love at first sight. Then things get messy.
Gabi, it turns out, isn't your typical Romanian twentysomething. Not only is she a star cellist in the Bucharest Opera House orchestra, but she also happens to be legally married to Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen) a dangerous criminal who has been out of the city due to a dispute with his former partner Darko (Til Schweiger). The two men, it appears, were video taped killing a number of people and Gabi's now deceased father had the tape in his possession. Now that Gabi's dad is dead, both Darko and Nigel want it destroyed assuming they can actually find it. Yes, it's a convoluted scenario made even messier once you realize the filmmakers have provided no realistic motivation for Charlie to not ditch Gabi and run for the mountains once he finds all this out. Of course, he doesn't and, instead, spends time running around Bucharest getting into machismo fueled fights with a jealous Nigel and trying to avoid being killed by Darko who believes he knows where the tape is. The plot eventually finds us back at the film's opening scene where Gabi is forced to shoot Charlie. Will our hero somehow survive? Will Nigel and Darko get what's coming to them? Is it possible a door could even be left open for …a sequel? Obviously, if you can easily figure out the answer to all these questions you can come to the conclusion that Drake, who co-wrote "Project X" with two other credited writers, is in over his head with "Necessary Death."
Bond, who proves he has an eye and can staging action sequences smartly, doesn't help matters by letting the film's tone jump all over the place. Consider that a majority of the film looks as though Michael Bay lit it, it has too many tracks from M83 , Sigur Ros and sound alikes and the film feels dated as it screens. In fact, change the music cues and this could have been released in the mid-90s. The dance club scenes look like it's 1998 and so do the token Romanian bad guys.
Speaking of the villains, Mikkelsen and Schweiger seem to be under false pretenses that they are making a movie that's a tad self aware about it's cliched premises. Wood and her shaky Eastern European accent, on the other hand, is playing it completely straight (no campy "True Blood" moments here). Add in Rupert Grint and James Buckly as two British travelers Charlie meets in a hostel and you've got some random comic relief that you swear you've seen in 10 other films. The only cast member who really comes out unscathed, surprisingly, is LaBeouf.
It's unclear if the 26-year-old actor understands what tone Bond is going for, but his energy and charisma keep the film's shaky premise moving along. The audience is given absolutely no background on Charlie beyond his mother's death (Did he have a job? Was he in school? Does he have any friends?), but LaBeouf makes us sympathetic to his over-the-moon infatuation for Gabi. Most importantly, Leo and LaBeouf superbly use their two "vision" scenes to at least make Charlie seem like he could be any everyday Chicago guy who just happens to be completely out of his element in a foreign country risking his life for a girl he met two days before. And considering LaBeouf's absolutely unappealing hairstyle (in a bun in the back most of the movie) and seedy look, that's saying something.
As for acquisition chances, "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman" seems like a hard sell for a mini-major that focuses more on pedigree such as Searchlight or Focus. Lionsgate or The Weinstein Company, on the other hand, could easily cut a trailer to make it look more like a traditional thriller and a one weekend wide release player. Once word of mouth spreads though, "Charlie Countryman" will have a short life in theaters.
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