There are basically two types of “ex-con” pictures. You have the ex-con who wants to go straight, but “the life” pulls the convict back into old alliances, old habits and murderous practices (“Straight Time”). Or we’re shown a released-inmate dive back into that life with relish (“The Get Away”).
And there’s generally just one version of con that we’re treated to — the innocent man/woman wronged, or at least unjustly punished.
“Shot Caller” gives us the latter in an overlong, brutally clumsy attempt to have the former both ways.
It’s yet another “Game of Thrones” star quickie, a place for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to go shirtless between seasons of Blood, Sex, and Medieval Supernaturalism.
He plays a businessman whose DUI puts him in prison, into prison gangs and in a murderous place where he’ll be “validated” and “lose his cherry” as he stabs to save his skin. Yes, a DUI — with a fatality — sets all this in motion.
In writer-director Ric Roman Waugh‘s lumbering narrative, we meet Harlan, covered in tattoos, prison mustache, prison mullet and prison nickname (Money) writing a “farewell” letter to his son. But he isn’t about to die. Murky circumstances lead to his release after ten years.
The gang leader of the prison (Holt McCallany, monstrous) has something to do with Money’s early release. He’s the real “shot caller” behind those walls, with Jeffrey Donovan (“Burn Notice”) and Evan Jones (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) as lieutenants.
Money’s parole puts him back in the company of former prison buddy Shotgun (Jon Bernthal at his most menacing). Money is back in the game, in the middle of a big arms smuggling deal involving weapons from Afghanistan bound for Latin American drug gangs.
We also follow Money’s parole officer (Omari Hardwick) as he and other cops (Benjamin Bratt) try to zero in on this gun deal.
And then there’s the family that Money long ago left behind, though how one turns one’s back, even in prison, on Lake Bell is a mystery.
Treachery, double-crosses, drive-by shootings and brutal, bloody flashbacks to the escalating in-prison crimes that put Money in this position drag the movie’s stumbling march toward an obvious conclusion out to two hours.
I’ve summarized and summarized, boiling this down to a digestible/understandable thru-line, I hope. Writer-director Waugh does us no such favors. “Shot Caller” is all over the place, incoherent at times, with unnecessary characters (Bratt is here, why?), scenes, digressions and momentum-killing flashbacks. Waugh stages a prison riot that would have been more at home in an ex-con comedy.
The character follows an arc built upon abrupt alterations in his fundamental character, a “good” man who goes utterly amoral. It’s an arc that leaps up and down like an EKG readout.
And the plot is a gimmick-strewn “long con” — a chess game built on murderously amoral absurdities and laughable plot contrivances. If you’re not rolling your eyes by the ridiculously never-happen artificiality of the finale, there’s a Nigerian prince who’d love to have your money.
There are some interesting players involved here, TV actors mostly — not a big screen headliner in the bunch. But none of them, including the brooding star, get to play anything that draws us into the story or make us connect with any character.
Unless, of course, all it takes for you to develop empathy is a ripped Dane with his shirt off.
Among the players, Bernthal shows us commitment and his usual supporting ferocity (check him out in “Baby Driver”), Bell and McCallany don’t embarrass themselves, but Hardwick’s part is both poorly written and unconvincingly played.
Coster-Waldau? He simmers, and when the scene calls for violence, he brings it — sort of. His first prison fight is a joke in the blows landed and the outcome, but the other bits of savagery feel uninhibited and “Who IS this guy?” scary. The movie kind of wallows in this stuff.
It’s the overall performance, party scene to bar scene to wife scene to teen son scene to make-a-gun-deal scene, that lacks a firm commitment and point of view. They figure they’re cleverly hiding the big twists in the story by keeping him poker-faced.
It’s as if star and the director are holding back, expecting to reveal a little more in “next week’s exciting episode” of a limited series, like the one he’s in on TV. Only there isn’t one.
MPAA Rating:R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some drug use and brief nudity
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Benjamin Bratt
Credits:Written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh . A Saban Films/Lionsgate release.
Running time: 2:01