I've never seen director Wayne Kramer's previous films, 'The Cooler' or 'Running Scared,' but I know that the former was a critical success and the latter has a bit of a cult following among certain crowds. Sadly, however, something tells me that his latest effort, 'Pawn Shop Chronicles,' isn't likely to become either of those things. A twisted, over-the-top dark action "comedy" filled with inept characters and some decidedly controversial subject matter, the film features a very ill-conceived grasp of tone and an exceedingly derivative style, resulting in an occasionally incompetent and ugly (inside and out) mess of a film. It's so bad, in fact, that its only redeeming quality is getting to see a hefty Brendan Fraser play an Elvis impersonator. And that should never be a film's highlight!
The script is divided into three distinct stories set in the South that are loosely connected by a framing device involving a local pawn shop. The first vignette focuses on two hillbilly criminals (Paul walker & Kevin Rankin) who try to rob a meth dealer. The second segment follows a man (Matt Dillon) who tries to find his missing wife. Finally, the last episode deals with an Elvis impersonator (Brendan Fraser) who falls on hard times. In between the separate narratives, we frequently check in with a pawn shop owner (Vincent D'Onofrio) and his friend (Chi McBride), who serve to help segue from episode to episode.
Clearly influenced by the works of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, the film presents a twisted and quirky world, but the runtime lacks the same wit and creativity that makes those other directors' films work so well. As it stands, the dark comedy mostly falls flat, and while the cast -- which also includes Elijah Wood, Lukas Haas, and Thomas Jane -- is certainly eclectic, the bizarre mishmash of actors all turn in performances that are far from their A-game. These derivative and unengaging stories and characters are then filtered through empty flash and an offensively pedestrian understanding of tone, resulting in a dull, superficial, and ultimately unpleasant experience.
Director Wayne Kramer tries to dress up the film's low budget with a few showy cinematic flourishes, but the quick pans, fast cuts, extreme push-ins, and sped up frame rates do little to hide the inherent deficiencies in the amateur visuals and troublesome script. A motif that involves switching the aspect ratio from 1.78:1 to a wider 2.35:1 during key moments and stand-offs, comes across as particularly forced and desperate. A comic book style intro to all the separate vignettes is also used, seemingly in an effort to reinforce the movie's cartoonish nature, but all this does is further confuse the disjointed mood. Of course, the flick's unsuccessful aesthetic choices and low budget style could be forgivable if the individual segments were at least entertaining. Sadly, however, with fleeting exceptions, that's very far from the case.
The initial episode about a duo of idiot hillbilly criminals who set out to rob a fellow drug dealer turns out to be excessively dull and dumb. The characters just kind of stand around and curse at each other with terrible accents for the majority of their screen-time, and what they have to say isn't funny or provocative. It's just stupid and annoying. With that said, one particular conversation that involves the racist pair questioning why they're supposed to hate Jews and African Americans is actually almost amusing, and comes close to sounding like the type of entertaining redneck banter you might hear on an episode of 'Justified.' Unfortunately, this momentary burst of wit proves to be all too fleeting, and the segment ends up closing with a pointless explosion of cartoon violence.
As bad as that introductory story is, the second vignette is by far the worst of the bunch, and exemplifies all that's wrong with Kramer's take on the material. Displaying an almost unbelievable disregard for tonal cohesion, the segment jumps around from twisted silliness to over-the-top, gruesome violence, until it finally settles on some genuinely disturbing content involving sex slaves -- and while it seems like the filmmakers are trying to play up all this material for perverse laughs, their approach to this more unsettling content is decidedly "off."
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that an interesting or even funny story can't be made from dark content, but the way Kramer tackles the concept here is just plain painful. The flippant, exploitative approach seems to be going for a certain grindhouse sensibility, and while that could have worked under different circumstances, that specific tone just doesn't come through. Instead, the attempt at dark comedy comes across as mean spirited and ugly, sucking any humor, amusement, or legitimate drama out of the situation while simultaneously leaving viewers with a bad taste in their mouths and a sudden desire to go take a shower.
The last segment is actually the most successful, and despite my snarky comments earlier, Brendan Fraser really does make for a surprisingly entertaining down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator. The episode's initial premise involves an amusingly serious feud between two neighboring barber shops that Fraser attempts to have his hair trimmed at and, on its own, this little bit makes for a solid short film. The plot then veers into a wildly different direction, however, and culminates in an utterly bizarre performance of Elvis' version of "Amazing Grace." And while the sheer insanity of the finale is actually kind of interesting, it can't come close to making up for what came before.
Filled with three wildly uneven vignettes that clash with each other, 'Pawn Shop Chronicles' ranges from boring to decent to just plain abhorrent. At its best, the flick is mildly entertaining, and at its worst it's truly dreadful. Sadly, the majority of the runtime (especially its second episode) is much more the latter. I understand that Kramer was going for a grindhouse-esque twisted sense of humor, but this tone isn't conveyed with any semblance of wit, imagination, or cohesion. Pedestrian and ill-conceived, the flick is one to avoid -- even if you can eventually find it for a good deal at a pawn shop.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay presents 'Pawn Shop Chronicles' in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. A BD-25 disc and a separate DVD disc are housed in a keepcase. After some logos and warnings, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer primarily in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, though isolated scenes switch to 2.35:1. Despite an occasional low budget look, this is a sharp and glossy HD presentation that looks quite nice.
With the exception of some negligible shimmering, the source is clean and free of any troublesome artifacts. Detail is strong, rendering every speck of dirt and ungroomed stubble on the characters' scruffy beards and grimy faces. Depth is also solid, though some scenes look comparatively flat. Colors adhere to a slightly dull but natural palette and while most of the presentation lacks vibrancy, a few flashback scenes feature a hyper-saturated look that pops intensely off the screen. Contrast is high with even whites and steady black levels. With that said, the movie's style and lighting is a little inconsistent, and the cinematography itself has an amateur look.
The film's aesthetic is on the cheap side and the photography is a little uneven, but 'Pawn Show Chronicles' comes to Blu-ray with a nicely detailed, technically strong transfer that's free from problematic artifacts.
The film is presented with an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Though flashy when it needs to be, this is a pretty basic track that lacks dimension and finesse.
Dialogue is mostly crisp, but there is some very minor crackle. The soundstage offers a solid sense of space and atmosphere (we get lots of crickets), and there's decent directionality (squealing tires pan around the room). Bullets also come through with ample weight and bass activity is solid in the more action oriented scenes. With that said, the mix is rather one-note and flat, and though there are some showy sound effects here and there, the audio isn't very nuanced or engaging.
Lively but not terribly immersive, this is an occasionally aggressive but basic mix that lacks auditory texture. Still, the cartoonish design fits well with the film's twisted sensibilities, and though it's not a real standout, the audio gets the job done just fine.
'Pawn Shop Chronicles' is an uneven mess of a film that tries to be a twisted grindhouse flick, but never gets a handle on its tone or sense of humor. There are a few slightly amusing moments, but the majority of the runtime is simply painful. Despite a certain low budget quality, the video transfer is strong. The audio mix is a bit basic and unrefined, but the lively effects work suits the over-the-top content well. While the included commentary is decent enough, there are no other special features. This is for fans only.