Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of TV’s Game of Thrones) used to be the perfect family man – a working-class stockbroker with a loving wife and son. That all changes during an unfortunate incident that put Jacob behind bars, exposing him to the tough realities of prison life, and destroying his ties with his once-happy family. Several years later, a hardened and transformed Jacob emerges, now going through the moniker “Money”, is released, but soon discovers that once he’s in deep with the criminal lifestyle, he can never truly escape it…
By all accounts this film looked and sounded like a DTV release. Upon further inspection I realized that this was written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, the same man who brought us other gems such as 2008’s Felon and 2013’s Snitch, and is currently attached to direct the third entry in Gerard Butler’s Fallen franchise, Angel Has Fallen. I instantly perked up and made my way to the sole theater playing this over last weekend.
This movie came and went in cinemas here for about a week. It will get a VOD release plus limited theatrical release sometime soon this week in the United States. While average fare like Atomic Blonde gets widespread coverage due to its marketing campaign directly using the female empowerment trope, genuinely good fare like this gritty prison drama gets swept under the rug, hoping to be forgotten. It is a damn shame, because this not only is this a front-runner for manliest film of the year in my humble opinion, but also a straight-up great film on its own merit.
I haven’t seen Game of Thrones – frankly put, the show never really interested me to begin with – and the films that I have seen Coster-Waldau in usually puts him in bland, white-bread hero roles with no depth or charm (Gods of Egypt, anyone?). That all changes here as Coster-Waldau give a strong, commanding performance as the normal man undergoing change through the California penal system, apparently one of the toughest and most controversial in America. I honestly preferred another actor such as Jason Momoa or even Dwayne Johnson again to play Harlon at first glance, but since they are currently busy with comic book fluff, and since Coster-Waldau is so good and convincing here, I didn’t mind it for a second.
Waugh’s direction is straight-forward in its depiction of hard-hitting criminal lifestyles, he doesn’t play it cute and he never strays into mawkish sentimentality. When violence happens, it feels raw and unfaked, there are no PG-13 cutaways to hide the brutality. Waugh keeps the threat and intensity grounded and real, which all the more adds more fascination towards Harlon as he weaves his way through prison and then out into the streets of Los Angeles. Waugh also employs a scattered non-linear technique, which depicts Harlon’s exit from prison as its opening scene, followed by flashbacks that show what made Harlon go down this path in the first place. At first, the transitions seem awkward – I have mentioned that flashbacks in films are a cliche that needed to die – but as the film progressed I saw the contrast between Harlon before and after prison life, which all built up to an amazing plot reveal that I honestly did not see coming, and propelled this picture straight up from good to amazing.
Everyone else in the film give solid support to Coster-Waldau: Omari Hardwick as the parole officer on Harlon’s case; Lake Bell as the supportive, and heart-broken, ex-wife; Jon Bernthal as a prison buddy and later future accomplice in crime; and, best of all, Jeffrey Donovan (TV’s Burn Notice) as a hilariously deranged skinhead leader (especially during the prison riot scenes) and Holt McCallany as a cool, calculated crime lord. All of these performers never overstay nor under-stay their welcome, but add to Waugh’s well-rounded story, complemented by a haunting score by Antonio Pinto (City of God).
So, if you’re fatigued with summer fare this year, you can rest assured that Ric Roman Waugh has got your back. See this one once it comes out at a theater near you, it definitely deserves a wide audience, not a laughable distribution plan that it has now.