Considering its subject matter and the insistence that this “inspired by a true story” is actually “fiction” in the closing credits, it’s no wonder the version of “I’m Charlie Walker” that makes it to the screen is nearly a dozen minutes shorter than an earlier cut.
As they’ve had to change the names of characters and a major oil company, it’s likely there were legal issues that led to the later cuts in this story of a contractor who battled racism at every turn in an effort to get a piece of a “money is no object” effort to clean up a massive oil spill in San Francisco Bay in the 1970s.
Late edits might also explain the sassy but somewhat perfunctory and “just-the-facts” nature of the finished film, when the trailers for this period piece suggest something more “stick it to the man” empowering, Blacksploitation in style.
That’s not to say “Walker” isn’t watchable and kind of fun. But the lack of style suggests a better movie might have been trimmed right out of it.
Mike Colter (TV’s “Luke Cage”) plays Walker, a dump truck owner-operator getting nowhere in San Francisco’s racist construction scene in the early ’70s. But the collision of two (Standard Oil) tankers becomes an instant all-hands-on-deck emergency for the area’s truckers. Charlie is reluctantly given one oil soaked beach nobody else can get to.
And once there, this born hustler hustles up unconventional solutions to an environmental disaster, charming the press and the “hippy volunteers” already pitching in as “The Mayor of Hunter’s Point,” “the contractor who’s going to clean up this mess.”
Along the way, he faces racist obstructionism, skepticism and blowback for his unconventional methods and “on the side” bookkeeping.
“We don’t use words like ‘on the side,'” the Tower Oil suit-in-charge (Dylan Baker) complains. But as Walker runs roughshod over Dept. of Labor, environmental and licensing issues, responding to an emergency and solving problems with “petty cash,” the viewer wonders if maybe they should.
A lot of details and points of conflict take place off camera, leading one to wonder what’s been edited out and who threatened to sue if it wasn’t. The film has a kind of jerky, truncated quality, with just a few scenes set on the actual worksite. Closing a beach while tractor scrapers scoop up oil-soaked sand would be hard for a modest budget film to permit, much less stage and film.
The script pays little attention to the environmental disaster unfolding — a news clip here and there — to focus on the “old boys’ network” Walker crashes into, the “open-ended contracts” and “blank invoices” that have local dump truckers cheering because they, like Charlie, see a situation ripe for abuse.
Walker comes off as a “get my foot in the door” and “get the job done” without fretting over legalities and the like kind of guy — sketchy, and made just amusing enough by Colter’s performance.
Safiya Fredericks plays the wife he leaves behind to hurl himself into this day-and-night job, a stand-by-your-man woman who narrates the story and copes with underhanded (and underexplained) efforts to frame and arrest Charlie and take away his contracts.
“I’m Charlie Walker” has just enough “feel good” and “that’ll show them” elements to get by. But I dare say a better film was hacked out of it, at some point. The evidence of that easy enough to see.
Rating: unrated, drug abuse, fisticuffs, nudity, profanity
Cast: Mike Colter, Dylan Baker, Safiya Fredericks, Mark Leslie Ford, Steven Wiig and Travis Johns.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Patrick Gilles. A Shout! Studios release.
Running time: 1:19