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Gritty prison movies are hardly a novelty. But as prison overcrowding and violence continue to loom as social issues, Ric Roman Waugh’s Shot Caller is undeniably timely. Waugh made a movie with a very similar premise, Felon, in 2008, which didn’t set the box office on fire but featured strong performances by Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer. His new film had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival, and Saban Films will release it in August. Box office should be respectable.
Shot Caller benefits from the presence of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the star of Game of Thrones, in the leading role. Since the film’s release coincides with the new season of the HBO series, cross-promotional opportunities abound. Here the actor plays Jacob, a Pasadena financier involved in a DUI accident that kills a friend who is a fellow passenger in his car. It seems a bit of a stretch to believe that a man without a criminal record would be sent to a maximum-security prison for causing the accident. Although the film explains that when a violent death is involved, this could conceivably happen, the script could use more than a single line of dialogue to ensure audience acceptance of this dubious premise.
Release date: Aug 18, 2017
Nevertheless, once you get past this setup, the pic is riveting. It actually intercuts two distinct time periods. The film begins with Jacob being released from prison after a 10-year term, then takes us back to his charmed life before he was imprisoned. These two time periods are intercut effectively throughout the film, and the editing allows us to appreciate the range of Coster-Waldau’s performance. He conveys a strong masculine presence in both sections of the film, and it is fascinating to watch his transformation from privileged family man to hardened con.
The prison scenes are extremely well done. Jacob finds himself caught between rival gangs in the prison, and he has to join up with the white supremacist group for the sake of sheer survival. Waugh’s script bitingly captures the racism so prevalent in prison, and the scenes of desperate men on the yard are strikingly designed to convey the soul-crushing dehumanization among prison populations.
The present-day scenes, which involve a gun-running plot, are less successful, sometimes too confusing to register forcefully. These scenes do culminate with a satisfying surprise twist, but too much of the plotting before then is muddled. A good supporting cast is given too little to do. Emory Cohen, one of Saoirse Ronan’s suitors in Brooklyn, plays a young acolyte of Jacob’s, and the appealing Lake Bell plays his former wife. But these gifted actors are saddled with stock and underwritten roles. Omari Hardwick as Jacob’s parole officer has a meatier role and fills it potently, and Jeffrey Donovan as the gang leader who tutors Jacob in prison is chillingly effective.
Waugh started working in films as a stunt man, and as he showed in Felon, he knows how to stage and edit action scenes compellingly. The prison scenes, filmed in part in real prisons in New Mexico, are vivid. And the family drama, involving Jacob, his ex-wife and teenage son, turns out to be unexpectedly moving. Shot Caller may cover little new ground but navigates familiar terrain with considerable skill.
Production companies: Bold Films, DirecTV, Participant Media, Relativity Media
Distributors: Saban Films
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Emory Cohen, Benjamin Bratt, Jeffrey Donovan
Director-screenwriter: Ric Roman Waugh
Producers: Gary Michael Walters, Jonathan King, Michel Litvak, Ric Roman Waugh
Executive producers: Matthew Rhodes, Jeff Skoll, Jeffrey Stott, Lisa Zambri
Director of photography: Dana Gonzales
Production designer: Guy Barnes
Costume designer: Kelli Jones
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Music: Antonio Pinto
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Gala)
Rated R, 121 minutes
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