Synopsis: A struggling ex-con and his unpredictable accomplice scam superficial trophy wives and their rich older husbands in self-obsessed Los Angeles.
Stars: Joel Hogan, Donald Prabatah, Alicia Leigh Willis, Jeff Prater, Acelina Kuchukova, Daniel Tolbert, Fernanda Hay
Director: Marcus Mizelle
Running Length: 80 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been on a run of watching a lot of movies from the early ‘90s and not only reclaiming some of my young movie-going memories I thought I had lost but revisiting my sadness that many of the films made during this time are a thing of the past. It used to be that each week for every blockbuster that came out there’d be two or three smaller titles that could fill the other screens at the multiplex – after all, back then there were less options for at-home viewing but still a healthy number of feature films released week-to-week, depending on your market. I’ve said it here before but the genre I greatly miss above all else are those crime-drama-mystery-thrillers that wouldn’t open huge at the box office but would stick around for weeks gathering weeknight crowds.
For everyone out there that has been shuffling through your various streaming sites and bemoaning that they don’t make neo-noir ‘90s movies like they used to, the slithery Chameleon might be one to check out. Writer/director Marcus Mizelle’s (very) indie film checks off many of the requisite boxes: sex, murder, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and an added layer of a fractured narrative to keep you on your toes throughout. Now, I’m going to forewarn you and say that Chameleon isn’t going to fill your cup if you are desperate for a Basic Instinct type experience but if you get a warm feeling when you see the Hollywood Pictures logo and think a film as bland as 1990’s Guilty as Sin merits some measure of discourse, add this to your queue, post-haste.
Parolee Patrick (Joel Hogan) isn’t out long before his prison pal Dolph (Donald Prabatah) comes knocking on his door with a proposal. Would Patrick want to continue to wash dishes making chump change or enter into a scheme with Dolph to swindle wealthy couples out of a nice chunk of money? Assessing his options, Patrick opts for Dolph’s offer and the two begin to locate well-off Los Angels men and their bored wives. Patrick sweeps in and seduces the wives before Dolph kidnaps them and holds them for ransom. Patrick gets the husbands to pay, mostly for the return of their wives but perhaps to protect their pride a bit as well. The scam proves lucrative for the two ex-cons, which can only mean that greed will eventually enter into the equation and when new target Rebecca (Alicia Leigh Willis) becomes something more to Patrick, it changes the loyalties of all involved.
Mizelle has made a smart (read: tricky) move by bifurcating the timeline pretty early on so the audience is thrown off-kilter as to what is happening and when. It doesn’t so much confuse as to simply delay putting the final puzzle together and even then there always seems to be at least one more mystery to solve. Viewers with a good eye will be able to keep track of how time plays out by watching Patrick’s hair length throughout. What keeps the film from truly taking off, though, is some unavoidable issues that plague low-budget productions. Performances range from shallow to serviceable and the dialogue could use a punch up to remove a number of too clever “no one talks like this” phrases that zap the viewer out of the movie. That being said, much of it is quite lovely to look at and at 80 minutes (well, let’s say 72 with a s-l-o-w credits roll) it keeps moving at a good pace. If the audience winds up far ahead of the characters before the end, it’s only because the plot contrivances can only divert for so long. Eventually, you see where this is heading and start to patiently wait for it to get there.
I saw Chameleon on my first day at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest in October and it was the only one of its kind genre film I was able to see this go-around. For that, I was glad to see something that attempted a clever angle and achieved most of what it set out for. Thinking about it months later, I wonder what this would look like down the road for Mizelle if he remade this after some script revisions with a bigger budget and a few casting shifts. There’s some strong potential here and Chameleon is worth a look in its current form…but I think with some reshaping the possibility of something better is strong.